Emily Long “Working with others is what really helps us grow as an organization. It gives us more projects and more room to experiment.”

A long-time member of Hive NYC, Emily Long is Director of Communications & Development for The LAMP, where — among many other roles — she manages the development of the MediaBreaker/Studios video remix platform. While earning her Masters at Colombia, Emily edited and catalogued hundreds of interviews and transcripts for the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, focusing primarily on their 9/11 Project.  She has spoken at conferences nationwide and her media and cultural criticism has been widely published. Emily is currently finalizing a case study on efforts to increase broadband adoption and access in New York City.


Emily’s Story

I’m wondering if you can start by giving me an overview of your work.

Emily Long: The LAMP is a nonprofit organization based in New York City. Our focus is on critical media literacy, teaching young people. We focus on three C’s: comprehend, create, and critique, which sometimes we swap out challenge for critique instead.

We’re very process oriented, not product oriented. We like to say that we’re not raising the next generation of little Martin Scorcese, we’re raising the next generation of junior Jon Stewarts. We teach a lot of remix and a lot of critical response — that’s really where our focus is.

We travel throughout New York City, bringing programs directly to schools, community centers, and library branches, essentially setting up pop-up digital learning labs wherever we go. We do that both during the school day and after school. We do it sometimes on weekends.

Our target group is typically in the kindergarten through grade 12 range. That’s our stated target group. In practice, most of our students are in middle school and high school.

We also have a professional development program that we do for educators who are looking to bring media literacy principles into their classrooms.

That’s the gist of it. In addition to the hands-on direct service programming that we provide, we develop digital resources and tools that are available at no cost nationwide, and technically worldwide.

The most cornerstone tool is our MediaBreaker Studios platform, which is an online video remix editor where students can bring in third-party, copyrighted content and then remix it.

It’s different from Mozilla Popcorn in that, with Popcorn, you’re layering on top of an existing video. With MediaBreaker, you can actually segment the video and move it around within the editor and splice in other video, images, transitions, and things. You’re altering the actual clip. That serves some purposes.

How are you dealing with the copyright? Is it under fair use?

It’s under fair use. We do have some users who are outside the United States but it was designed to accommodate United States Copyright law. The MediaBreaker Studios environment is a closed environment. We have students who go in there and they can make something, play around a little bit and then they can submit it for publication.

We view it first, and if it meets fair use requirements then we’ll publish it on our YouTube channel. If it doesn’t, then it stays within their studio. They can still view it along with the other people in their studio, like their classmates, their friends, or whoever else. They can view it but they cannot export the clip themselves. It stays there.

We really wanted a safe space for young people to be able to play and make mistakes because we think that fair use is a really important thing for people to understand but it is also really complex and very, very grey.

We have a lot of people who are using the first version of the tool who were getting frustrated because they’d spend all this time on these breaks and then basically never get to share them with anybody. It was almost like their work wasn’t validated unless they got it right on the first try.

This is a way for their teachers to still say, “OK, you are making progress,” and they can see evidence of critical thinking. But fair use can be really hard to do — even over just like a three-minute time span.

When it does go up online, it goes up on The LAMP’s YouTube channel. If there is any kind of take-down notice, then we are the ones who deal with it, not the kids or the teachers.

Can you tell me about a specific time where you really felt a sense of success with your work?

The biggest successes we have felt have been in our events, specifically around MediaBreaker.

I will talk about MediaBreaker a lot because it encapsulates everything that we are trying to do in terms of getting kids to progress along this rubric that we have developed where you’re actually able to understand the media message, you’re able to create your own media message using remix, and then talk back to the initial message and critique it, which is what our critical remixes are.

It really encapsulates everything that we want students to do throughout our workshops.

We felt our greatest successes when we do group break-a-thons. These are events that we hold where we typically focus around some kind of mass televised events.

We’ve made an annual thing out of doing it every year over the Super Bowl. We have an event called Break the Super Bowl, where kids are looking at Super Bowl ads and then remixing them. Then we throw them back up online, if they’re fair use, in real time.

We get a bunch of kids together for the Super Bowl and it looks like a regular Super party. We’ve got pizza, and Doritos, and wings, and soda, and all the junk food. But then they’re all working in teams on laptops, and they’re remixing the actual ads from the Super Bowl that go up that night. We have the game playing on a larger screen so that it has a fun party atmosphere, but they’re actually doing something.

What about this is successful to you? What’s different before they do it and after?

What’s different before they do it is we see them engaging with media in a way that they typically hadn’t before. We’d like to do this with students that we already know a little bit, so we have a base point for what type of media engager they are. I don’t like saying just consumer, but engager doesn’t sound right.

We like to have a base level for that. We’ve struggled with the quantitative metrics of this because we hear students saying things like, “I never paid attention to the commercial before,” or “I didn’t realize that this is what they were selling,” or “I never thought of this commercial in this way.” Or they never thought of a commercial as being particularly offensive to some group, or something like that. Again, because we know them a little bit, it’s us being able to see that transformation process. That’s been successful.

In addition to that, it’s also things like a lot of the kids that we work with are low-income and under-served kids, so they’ve never before held a video camera. We were just doing a summer program where we had kids working on public service announcements.

In the beginning of the program the kids were fighting over who was going to get to use the pencil. Then somehow by the end of it they managed to work together as a group, and create a public service announcement that’s talking about Black Lives Matter, or bullying, or littering, or something else that’s important.

I watched the Black Lives Matter and the littering videos.

You can see there some of what I’m talking about. This is very process, not products. These are kids who have cameras on their phones, they’ve just never used them in this way. They’ve certainly never sat down with editing software and gone for it in that way.

Can you give me an example of a challenge you’ve faced recently?

One of the biggest challenges that we’ve faced overall, in terms of trying to talk about our work and why it’s important, is that media are such a monolith.

When we try and talk to potential funders, or donors, or partners about why critical media literacy is important, that can be a hard message to get across. Because there is a mistaking of use-of-media for media-literacy, which is not the same thing.

There is also an idea that kids are just going to eventually get it as they grow up. Just as with practice, you become a better reader of the written word of text and books. In the first grade you’re not reading the same thing you’re reading in 12th grade, even though you didn’t necessarily sit down and work at it in a concentrated way.

Getting people to understand that this is not a skill that builds, that it’s something that needs to be actively taught. That it’s so important for 21st-century learning. That it’s not something that kids just innately understand because they were born in an age of email addresses.

Those are big challenges for me. I come at it from a communications and development side, so these are things that I face.

Another challenge is that with young kids we get some push back like, “You’re taking it too seriously.” It’s only an advertisement, it’s only a commercial, only a TV show, whatever.

So getting kids to think past that in their head. It’s not just anything. Because this is something that you think about, right? It’s designed, it’s been constructed that way to get you to keep talking about it and thinking about it. Clearly it’s not something that is just in one ear and out the other. It’s worth actually critiquing.

You’re giving it time and attention, so it’s worth your actual attention. Helping them understand, too, that just because you critique something doesn’t mean you don’t have to enjoy it.

We try and be very focused in teaching kids that we’re not trying to get them to hate the media or turn off the TV. We just want you to think about what’s going on. About what you’re looking at, and what you’re hearing, and what you’re seeing.

If I’m understanding correctly, this is like the difference between getting better at reading between kindergarten and grade 12 versus stepping back and seeing the broader themes, or the embedded cultural values, or what an author was trying to communicate. Or the rhetorical strategies being used. Or how texts attempt to influence behavior.

Yes, exactly. All of that.

What are some of the ways you’ve approached solving or addressing these challenges?

With young people we try and push through it and find something that they do care about. Once we can make the point of like, “You are still thinking about that Beyonce music video, right? You’re still talking about it. So it’s not just entertainment, it’s having an impact on you in some other way.”

Getting them to acknowledge that it does occupy a brain space can sometimes be enough. It also takes time, because some kids are more reluctant than others to change their thinking about a long-held belief that a commercial is just a commercial.

In the case of adults, it depends a lot on the audience. If we’re talking with teachers then we will speak about it in more pedagogical terms, about how learning is scaffolding and critical thinking is scaffolding.

The shift that needs to change is thinking of media as text, and not just pop culture, and not just entertainment. But as real, serious texts to be taken seriously. As devices, as tools and not just toys. There’s this realm of possibility if you’re open to it.

In New York City, the ban on cell phones in schools was just lifted about a year or two years ago. So, for a lot of teachers, they really aren’t there yet with thinking about personal devices as learning tools. They are still thinking of them as distractions.

Then when we talk to funders, sometimes it’s the workforce development side that really gets them. How these are skills that young people need to have when they come out of school.

These basic media-literacy skills they need to understand, networking online, and creating a presence online, and doing research. That’s getting pretty hard for them to ignore at this point. These should be graduation requirements.

In your own words, how would you describe the open internet? What does that mean to you?

The first thing I think of is net neutrality. An internet where information or data or opinions are not squelched by your service provider or by another larger site that wants to gobble the smaller fish and pay for the advantage of getting to you faster.

But it’s also censorship and a lack of censorship. Freedom to speak and have your voice heard.

Can you think of a time when what you’ve described has been important to you or your organization?

Speaking more generally, I would say the election as a whole. Everything that we’ve seen happen with major platforms like Facebook, and Facebook News, serving you up whatever it is that you want to see and whatever it is that you want to hear, that already agrees with your bias. That to me is not an open internet.

It’s frustrating because we’ve heard over the years people talking about how open and democratic the internet is. There are still examples where you have humans going in and tampering with algorithms and making it so that Facebook is a pleasant place for you to be. That often means not confronting opinions that are different from your own.

It’s important for people to understand the infrastructure and the business behind how media get to you and how your media messages are served up to you. That’s something we’ve been talking about in terms of comprehending and critiquing the entire structure and construction of media and technology as money-making machines.

We’ve seen how the airwaves were dominated, not necessarily by what is true, or what is accurate, but what it is that’s going to draw the most clicks and the most eyeballs. That’s re-enforced it in a million other ways, but it’s writ large during an election, particularly this one.

Turning now more specifically to Mozilla. Can you tell me how you got involved with them and what that’s been like?

I suppose my first learning of Mozilla was when Firefox came out, and then when our executive director started The LAMP, started this organization, he found out about the Hive Learning Network fairly soon afterwards, and wanted us to be a part of it, so we became part of it, and that was really where I got to learn more.

We were one of the early-ish members of the Hive. It was still a fairly insular group at that time. It was easier to get knowledge about what the other organizations were doing, and how that fed into Mozilla’s larger message, because everything was just more centralized and more together then.

Now, there are many, many more organizations that are part of the Hive, at least in New York. I don’t know all 80 of them intimately, so I can’t say how they’re all connecting to reading and writing the web, or a neutral web. I can’t talk about that for each one, but earlier on I could. I could say how they each contributed.

In terms of the impact that being part of the Hive has had on either you or your work, what would you say it brings? Again, if you have a specific example that would be great.

Largely it’s the partnerships and also the credibility. Being a part of the Hive allows us, a very small organization, to approach an organization like Bank Street, that’s been around for like a hundred plus years and that is just full of so much expertise, and so much history. I think it would be really hard to get them to take us seriously if we didn’t share a space, like in the Hive. Under normal circumstances approaching them would be impossible.

And indeed we’ve worked with them a lot. And we continue to work with them, even though the person who was our main contact there has now moved on to Teachers College. Now we’ve been talking with Teachers College and working with them, which is another connection that would’ve been very hard for us to make.

Same thing with WNYC Radio Rookies. It would just be hard for us to break through — just to get our foot in the door with larger organizations, that frankly just have a lot more money and a lot more people than we do. We’re still very much grassroots.

Being part of the Hive has been like, “We share the same interests that you are. We’re not doing the same work, but we can complement you. We can complement the work that you’re doing. Your work complements what we’re doing.”

Occupying that space helps us move forward. Working with others is what really helps us grow as an organization. It gives us more projects, it gives us more room to experiment, to have successes and failures. That’s what allows us to move.

Can you tell me about a time that Mozilla, or being part of the Hive, didn’t meet your expectations?

More recently, the network has been going through some changes were there have been a lot more organizations that have been coming into the network. It’s getting larger and it’s harder for me to tell how everybody fits together. Part of it is just the space of digital learning has gotten larger. There are a lot more organizations now than there used to be.

One specific instance — I mentioned during focus groups organized by Hana — I think it was about three years ago now, that we had an open call for applications to the Hive, and there were, obviously, several more applications that came in than we had spots to fill, and I was one of the people who reviewed the applications. Of the people who applied, X number of people were invited to join the Hive.

Then over, probably about the following year, I saw a lot of the other people who didn’t make that first run of applications, then start to show up in Hive meetings. That was surprising to me, because as a reviewer, it was a hard decision for me to make.

I know it was a hard decision for other reviewers to make, to say like, “Some people belong here, belong in this space, and other people don’t.” Either because like, “We don’t need yet another group that does this, and we need some diversity of variety.” Or because for some other reason.

But that was never communicated, like “We’re going to a tiered membership level.” Or, “Here are newest standards for how people are being let in.” Or, “Here’s the process.”

Yet it took up a lot of my time to go through and completely review the applications.

In the end, it felt like, “Well, it didn’t really matter if just everybody was going to be let in, anyway.” That’s the one time that I can say I felt anything approaching a let down. Because they’re usually very, very good at communicating change.

How might the stories we collect be useful to you, if at all?

One of the things that I would say we’ve benefited from the Hive has been about hearing when other people do things that don’t work. That’s another thing that can happen, again, when the network is small enough and people feel safe, can safely talk about their failures.

That might be tricky to do with this particular platform. I don’t know how willing I would be to have my failures excruciatingly documented. But that’s one thing that’s been useful. Maybe the focus here could be more on best practices than it is on what didn’t work. Hearing best practices, hearing about what in this work surprised you? What did you learn that you weren’t expecting to learn? I agree with what you were saying early on about if you just look for what you’re looking for, you’re going to find that, and you’re limited to that.

I’m interested in what surprises people. I’m interested in what they’ve found out that they weren’t expecting to find out. Just having your assumptions reinforced is not very interesting to me.

Is there anything more that you want to tell me, or anything more you want to ask me before we wrap up?

I guess I’m curious as to why, in your own words, this was something that Mozilla wanted to embark upon, StoryEngine. Then also this interview, fact-finding for our research process, as well.

I think that the Mozilla Foundation felt that there’s a lot of good work — good stories across their work globally — that were not being captured in a systematic way.

They knew a lot of good things were happening, but they didn’t have a way to grab that, other then very anecdotally, or in an ad hoc way. To have a way to do that in a more systematic way, that could, as I mentioned at the beginning, feed outreach and development, but to have some elements of evaluative rigor, because all of the stories will be coded and analyzed.

Mozilla was really interested in capturing stories. I looked at GlobalGiving’s approach, where they focus on capturing a lot of anecdotes. Because, eventually, with enough of them they become data. We were inspired by their method, which originally came from a group called Cognitive Edge. They have a tool called SenseMaker, where instead of me coding your story I would ask you what your story is about. You take one anecdote and ask the respondent to code it themselves using a framework of three terms in a triangle. It creates a visual. And you can layer the triangles and see patterns. They call it self-signifying the story.

I don’t know if you’ve been at MozFest, but there’s so much that happens, and there are so many connections that are formed. Sometimes, it’s three years later and it’s blossomed into another thing where someone’s gotten a job, or an idea has evolved into a program, or something like that has happened. If a system like StoryEngine is in place, it’s a way to capture those impacts.

Then the other thing I mentioned previously, they wanted to create a feedback loop. With the networks especially — a way to know if things aren’t working, surface people’s ideas, and generally touch base — its important to have a feedback loop based on more than surveys, which can miss a lot.