Friday, January 17, 2014

The Intoxicating Camera

It's coming to your campus.

I'm Shmacked, founded by Arya Toufanian and Jeffrey Ray, two twenty-something aspiring filmmakers, turns college campuses into music videos, although perhaps not in the way administrators or parents might hope. In between jump cuts to students crowd surfing and shaky cam shots of students grinding on the dance floor, the videos might showcase a few noticeable campus buildings or cheering crowds at sports games. Academics and classrooms, of course, are noticeably absent. (Though the founders claim they'd like to show them too.) 

They insist they're merely there to document the college scene and to help prospective students learn about colleges by showcasing the social life. According to Toufanian, “Kids don’t want to read anymore...Seeing a video is a much more fun way to learn about a school.”

Of course their motto is "I'm Shmacked: It's a movement," which makes it sound less like a documentary project and more like...well, a movement.

The problem is the filmmakers host the parties they claim to document. Indeed, the very name I'm Shmacked suggests their focus. It's not something you say after a hard test. It's something you say after a few shots of hard liquor. At the bottom of their videos, the company claims that "no alcohol or illegal substance is used during filming, just props." Perhaps the camera itself acts as a kind of intoxicant.

Indeed, students eagerly perform for the camera. The camera is not an objective lens onto campus life, but an invitation to perform. Much as alcohol can be used as a kind of permission slip to misbehave, so can the camera and the thrill of being on screen. Perhaps students are compelled by some strange sense of school spirit that measures a university's success in cups of beer. One of the parties, held at University of Delaware, devolved into what police described as a near riot.

Co-founder Arya Toufanian admitted as much in an interview, saying, “I have cameras and a budget now, and a bunch of college kids who will do anything to be on camera.".

Indeed, USA Today quotes one student who claims that I'm Shmacked gives students the ability to "express themselves" differently.

Other students are sensitive to the ways video and social media coax students into performing: "I'm worried that filming it will just exacerbate (students') dangerous behavior so they look 'cooler' on camera," said one student in the same USA Today news report.

Students are also divided on how appearing in one of these videos might affect their professional lives. One student thought it unlikely that he could be identified in the video:  "If my future employers were to watch the video," he said, "I doubt the likelihood of them recognizing me."

Meanwhile, another student told the New York Times, “To do this on a video that can go viral, you must have a train-wreck mentality.”

At the same time, we can't completely discount the co-founders claim. I'm Shmacked does document something, though it may not be an entirely accurate reflection of campus life. It seems to open a view onto students'  attitudes regarding campus partying and their motives to party in the first place.

I'm Shmacked offers students a chance to be seen and to "represent" their school. It's perhaps no coincidence that the videos often include shots of sporting events and/or shots of campus gear. The parties themselves are a kind of performance and competition. In several of the videos students proclaim their school is the "best." Undoubtedly a sense of competition fuels students to act crazier.

But then again, maybe we shouldn't get so worked up. Much of the actual footage is rather tame. Students screaming, dancing, or crowd surfing are pretty typical. A lot of the motion and action is in the editing.

Perhaps, then, I'm Shmacked offers campuses a way into a more nuanced discussion with their students about why they party. Why is this the story so many students seem to want tell about college? And if partying is about letting loose and forgetting yourself, why would anyone perform or show off for a camera?

In fact, I'm Shmacked has itself tried to open conversations on campus by adding short interviews with students about topics like "one night stands or relationships" or "drunk versus sober."

We don't have answers, but your students might. 

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