This case study takes a look at the events that surrounded the harassment of bus monitor Karen Klein in Greece, NY in 2012 and its relation to civic media, participatory culture, and produsage. By doing so, the case aims to be an example that shows the power of civic media, and how its participatory practices have changed the production and consumption of traditional media.
As discussed in Convergence Culture (Jenkins 2006), Broadcasting in the 21st Century (Rudin 2011), and “Dimensions of Digital Media Literacy and the Relationship with Social Exclusion” (Park 2012), civic media—founded on the ideals of participation, social justice, and transparency—is being redefined not by larger media companies, but by consumers and amateur, user-generated content, causing a shift in the relationship between broadcaster, listener, and viewer. Where at one time large companies and organizations had been in charge of media outlets, today, through the Internet, almost anyone can become a broadcaster—which is exactly what happened with the case of Karen Klein.
In June 2012, four 7th grade students from the Greece Athena Middle School in Greece, NY videotaped themselves bullying Klein on their bus ride home. The boys appeared on the film, calling Klein a “bitch” and a “fat ass,” mocking her appearance and age, threatening her, and making her cry. These videos, user-generated content entitled “Making the Bus Monitor Cry
,” “Bus Monitor Harassment
,” and “Bus Monitor Harassment 2
,” were later posted throughout various social media sites and outlets. While the videos of these boys bullying Klein were originally posted on Facebook, a user who was not one of the bullies reposted the recordings on YouTube. Within a day the videos went viral, demonstrating a perfect example of participatory culture.
Image 1: Screenshot of the video “Making the Bus Monitor Cry” from YouTube.
Image 2: Screenshot of the video “Bus Monitor Harassment
Image 3: Screenshot of the video “Bus Monitor Harassment 2
The digital world and Internet culture is based around this participatory culture (Hobbs 2010; Jenkins 2006; Jenkins et al 2006; Park 2012).1 In “Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” Jenkins et al. define the term as:
. . . a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.
In many ways, participatory culture can be thought of as shifting away from consumer culture. As Jenkins et al. explain, participatory culture requires users to be extremely active in their media use—both in their creation as well as in their consumption.
In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins further makes it clear that media, no matter its own medium or message, cannot exist without participatory culture and a new type of active consumer. In her book Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, Renee Hobbs explains that to be a part of participatory culture, it is absolutely necessary to incorporate both creating as well as sharing. People are not just consumers, but also producers and contributors by broadcasting different types of media online. Additionally, there is no longer a clear distinction between producer and user, broadcaster and viewer.
The boys who filmed themselves taunting Klein, however, are not the focal point of participatory culture within this example. It’s the audience who watched the videos (“the active consumers”) that make the event so key.
After all, an important aspect of participatory culture is that the audiences cannot simply remain spectators, solely consuming information presented to them; rather, audiences themselves need to create their own content and interact with others doing the same.
The online reaction to the videos of Klein being bullied was tremendous. Audiences posted response videos on YouTube and there were multiple discussion threads about the incident on Reddit2 3—a participatory site that (based on points and voting) shares web content such as text posts, videos, and other links. The more points (and community approval and awareness) a post gets, the more likely the content will reach the front page, where the most users will see it. These Reddit users were incredibly active consumers, and their sharing of the videos was essential.
Image 4: Screenshot of one of the Reddit threads discussing the Karen Klein videos
Image 5: Screenshot of a second Reddit thread discussing the Karen Klein videos
After much discussion, Reddit users began looking for further information, finding the name and location of the school, Karen Klein’s Facebook profile, and the names, Facebook pages, and phone numbers of her tormentors. After much of the personal information was posted, Reddit moderators stepped in, shutting down the thread for privacy violations. Moving the discussion to another site, the videos were also shared on 4chan—an image-based bulletin board community where users can post comments and share images. (The discussion surrounding Karen Klein, however, no longer exists, as 4chan has no archive and threads expire). 4chan users reposted the information that had been shared on Reddit, again sharing the same information that had previously been posted on Reddit; but this time also including their home addresses. The users had found out Klein’s tormentor’s information, and now they wanted to find a way hold them accountable.
The users on Reddit and 4chan are perfect examples of produsers. In Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage, Axel Bruns defines produsers as people who can be both users and producers (2008). In the case with Karen Klein, Reddit and 4Chan users were both consuming the video her bullies posted, as well as producing discussion that caused the video to go viral. Bruns further describes how produsers are interacting with content production through produsage, which is “the collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement” (ibid, 21) Put simply, the users on Reddit were participating in a form of produsage, “extending” the existing videos by attempting to improve Klein’s life situation by raising awareness and making a change within an offline space.
As Bruns further writes, it is about “transferring knowledge” and turning internet consumption and information from a static practice into a shared space where users participate and share with each other (ibid, 208). People began calling the Greece school system and the student’s homes, demanding action. 4chan users posted that Klein only stayed at her job because it was the only work she could find, and she could not afford to quit. One Reddit user, Max Sidorov, started a fundraiser on Indiegogo (a crowdfunding website) with the original intention to raise money for Klein to go on a vacation.4 The users Reddit and 4chan users further participated in produasage, when they built awareness of her situation and helped raise money through the Indiegogo campaign and researching to find out the perpetrators in this incident, and see to it that they faced consequences for their actions.
Image 6: A screenshot of the Indiegogo page started to raise money for Karen Klein by Max Sidorov.
After the video went viral, being broadcasted on both social media sites and in traditional news and print, the campaign raised over $700,000. Klein later used a portion of the money to start an anti-bullying organization: The Karen Klein Foundation. Additionally, the students in question were suspended from school for a year, required to complete 50 hours of community service with senior citizens, and had to attend a formal program in bullying prevention.
Image 7: A screenshot of the Karen Klein Foundation website.
Along with online, collaborative environments of participatory culture, produsers (much like the Reddit and 4chan users) are completely changing and blurring how media is made, distributed, and consumed, causing a shift within the traditional top-down media and release of content. It was not until after the story went viral through social media sites that the mainstream media discovered and reported the story in magazines, newspapers, television, and radio. It is important to note that top-down media did not drive this news story; this became a story for traditional broadcasters after it was discovered, discussed, and driven to a viral status due to civic media, participatory culture, and produsage.
Bruns, Axel. 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Hobbs, Renee. 2010. Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action. Washington, D.C.: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Aspen Institute.
jelloleaf. 2012. Kids call bus monitor ‘fat’ until she cries and they still don’t stop. Thread on Reddit. June 20. http://redd.it/vb5gj.
Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.
Park, Sora. 2012. “Dimensions of Digital Media Literacy and the Relationship with Social Exclusion.” Media International Australia 142: 87-100.
Rudin, Richard. 2011. Broadcasting in the 21st Century. London: Palgrave Macmillan.