Sunday, March 18, 2012

Assignment 2, Part 1

Collective Action: A long, long time ago

In its January, 2011 edition, Newsweek published online a list of dying cities in the United States, a survey based, in part, on census figures that showed which urban centres were most quickly losing their young people to economic possibilities elsewhere. The original article

The article pointed out that “Michigan dominates much of this list, with several cities experiencing significant decline in population as the state suffered high unemployment rates and above average foreclosures in recent years due mainly to the collapse of the auto industry.” Over the period of 2000-2009, for instance, Grand Rapids suffered a 2.1 per cent population drop, and, most significantly, a 2.2 per cent popluation decline in the under-18 cohort.

For that, Grand Rapids landed the 10th position in the Newsweek poll. Predictably, the ranking drew fire from the usual political and economic leaders, typical of which was an online letter sent by the mayor:

Unpredictably, a pair of 22-year-old Grand Rapidians from the local video-music-production set, Rob Bliss and Scott Erickson, fired up their imaginations and produced what Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert would call the greatest music video ever made.

It was the Grand Rapids LipDub, a reported one-shot, eight-minute plus tour of Grand Rapids featuring about 5,000 people lip syncing to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a song, like the city, you may think you know.

At this writing, its main YouTube page had drawn 4,602,287 views. It is a visual feast of marching bands, parades, pillow fights, weddings, football practices, cheerleaders, exploding bridges, acoustic guitars, helicopter aerials and a closing shot that celebrates text. Try to watch it without shaking your head in amazement at the exuberance and collective effort asked for and delivered. You can’t.

Erickson, who was still 18 years away from being born when “American Pie” was released, told WGVU’s West Michigan Week current affairs television broadcast that “the Grand Rapids lip dub video is a memorial and testament to how open and wonderful the community of Grand Rapids is. Not just its inhabitants, but its local government.” And, speaking of his creative partner, that “Rob wanted a song with a lot of visual imagery. To paraphrase what he tells people, it has very colourful lyrics, it is an all-American song, and it communicates a lot of cool ideas that he wanted to draw from.”

In this space, I would like to briefly venture out and make some tentative observations about what is going on, other than the the actual lip dub, in the lip dub video.

1.  Collective Action. In his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky (2008) explains that new technology, including YouTube, enables new kinds of group-forming: “The core idea is the same: we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations” (pp. 20-21).

It is worth remembering that Bliss and Erickson did not write a letter or take their displeasure about the Newsweek article to Newsweek or WGVU or the Chicago Sun-Times. They went to YouTube.

And they went to YouTube with an example of what Shirky has in mind when he distinguishes collective action from collaborative production, cooperation and sharing (the mayor’s letter, for instance), elements of which are also visible in the LipDip effort and anti-Newsweek effort. Collective action, Shirky says, is the most difficult kind of group effort to achieve because it demands that “a group of people...commit themselves to undertaking a particular effort together, and to do so in a way that makes the decision of the group binding on the individual members.”

In historical terms, a potluck dinner or a barn raising is collaborative production (the members work together to create something), while a union or government engages in collective action, action that is undertaken in the name of the members to change something out in the world, often in opposition to other groups committed to different outcomes. (p. 51)

Shirky’s scaffolding helps us build an understanding of how the LipDub project, aimed at changing the impression of Grand Rapids left by the Newsweek ranking, is more than just cool or neat or worth liking, but is, rather, an example of collective action.

2. New Media As Metamedia. Lev Manovich, in the article “New Media from Borges to HTML,” argues that by the 1980s (we observe that this was the decade of the birth of Bliss and and Erickson) there was a recognition that culture had become “more concerned with reworking already existing content, idioms and style, rather than genially creating new ones.” Bliss, although a musician himself, did not write a new song for Grand Rapids, Michigan. Erickson did not produce a new, chamber of commerce style video celebrating the architecture of Grand Rapids. What they devised and created was a collective action video that employed a widely known folk-pop song, developing a new narrative for both it and Grand Rapids in the process.

3. The Media Mind. These guys know what they are doing. In And Then There’s This: How Stories Live And Die In Viral Culture, Bill Wasik, who introduced the mob project to the world, makes us consider that “the relevant actors of so-called consumer-generated media...are every bit as savvy, as ambitious, and as calculating as aspiring culture-makers have ever been.” (11)

In the WGVU interview, Erickson reveals that the idea for the LipDub came first as a frame that had not connection to Newsweek. Only later, once the Newsweek article appeared, did the content get added. Erickson says: “In November of 2010, Rob and I were talking and he said, ‘I kinda wanna do one of those lipdub videos, downtown, with the whole community. And this was actually before the Newsweek article came out. And I was kinda like, okay.”

The Grand Rapids LipDub was an effect waiting for a spark.

Erickson himself makes Wasik’s point in the middle of a paean to the spirit of cooperation in Grand Rapids (the fire department actually recommended the pyrotechnician, Captain Boom!) when he provides some unsolicited autobiography.

In the WGVU interview he says:  “You have to remember, Rob and I are both 22. We are looking forward to our 23rd birthdays this year. And we’re very ambitious [emphasis added] and progressive, I think, in what we want to do professionally. But, at the end of the day, we’re kids who like to blow things up.”

Besides the column of fireworks on the bridge, what they have blown up in the Grand Rapids LipDub video have included old ideas of what collective action looks like.


Heartwell, G. K. (2011, January 25). “Dear Newsweek: An open letter from Mayor George K. Heartwell.” The Rapidian [online magazine].
Shirky, C. 2008. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New    York: Penguin.
“The Grand Rapids LipDub.” (2011, May 26). YouTube:
“West Michigan Week: LipDub Producer Interview on WGVU.” (2012, February 19). YouTube:
Manovich, L. (2003). New media from Borges to HTML. In Wardrip-Fruin, N., & Montfort, N. (Eds), The new media reader (pp. 13-25). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
Wasik, B. 2009. And then there’s this: How stories live and die in viral culture. New York: Penguin


  1. What a great example of concerned citizens coming together to communicate pride in their city.

  2. Kim, thanks for watching the video. It remains my favourite example of a creative alternative to the same-old, same-old from the politicians.