Monday, March 10, 2014

Muppets Meta-Mock Instagram

How would you categorize these Muppets Instagram images?
 clockwise from top left: Swedish Chef selfie; invading Beeker's privacy; found sight gag of Gonzo; pranking Zoot with the old banana in the horn

Among my fondest early media literacy experiences was sitting in a theater watching the first Muppet Movie when the film appeared to break apart and get replaced by a scene of the muppets in a theater watching the film they had made break and complaining about the projection error. To promote the latest movie to the millennial generation, the Muppets have an Instagram site pulling the same tricks--making you laugh while seeing the construction of the stuff you enjoy. The site is a genre study of Instagram images--selfies, sight gags, photo bombs, ad remixes, celebrity shots, privacy invasions, etc. It's worth talking about for kids to explore and discover the unwritten, unspoken rules and categories that emerge, like a grammar in their social media just as in any other communications. Ask: What are the categories of images? Do you see commonly these types of pictures on Instagram sites of friends, celebrities, others? What do you notice about the production values of the images?
Playful marketing? Or, do the Muppets have "Evil Plans" to co-opt your authenticity in social media?

About half of the shots look like ads of different genres/styles with professional production; the kind of stuff a fan might forward to friends with excitement about a new release. The other half look like amateur shots, suggesting the idea that the muppets themselves took them. The attention to detail given to the amateur, "real" look of many of the images--poor framing, blurred exposures, low resolution--is quite remarkable. It's a nice clear example of mass media taking up the spontaneous aesthetics of grassroots media with calculated precision in order to sell back to the masses a familiar style. That makes this site a funny way learn about how big entertainment and marketing companies use emerging structures of communication as well as a way to examine how genres, codes and conventions structure our personal uses of social media.
[inspired by Steph Harmon at Junkee; activity ideas after the jump]

The muppets Instagram site gives us a chance to revisit a classic media literacy activity--grouping like with like to construct categories, assess codes and identify conventions in media. Pre-digital media educators used to do this with magazine images or newspaper clippings. So let's give it a try with social media. Learners could explore their own Instagram sites (or Tumblr, or Flickr, even facebook), or sites you choose, and group together images that seem to communicate in particular ways (dragging images into folders works well). Then, give names to the categories, and discuss the rules for inclusion/exclusion. If you want to take it a step further to the production side, have groups create a character through an Instagram page that includes images from a variety of genres.

It's fun to recognize the invisible rules and structures of media communication. Self-aware schtick has been a specialty of Jim Hensen's muppet productions for decades, which gave a wink to adults with humor about making TV, films and popular culture while their kids enjoyed the characters, songs and stories straight up. More importantly for a teaching discussion, the Muppets meta-performance style shows how recognizing the constructedness of media can be a pleasure in itself. Media educators interested in student-centered approaches often worry (as they should) about how their insistence on critical thinking about media may "disturb" learners' pleasures. It's tricky to honor students' appetite for immersion in the media they love when media literacy practice inevitably interrupts immersion for reflection, analysis and evaluation. The muppets offer a nice reminder about the pleasure of recognizing and playing with the rules of the game. A lot of humor in general is based on that sort of playful (or shocking) transgression of conventions and codes of communication, which can make us see how the rules work. The better your students get at recognizing the rules, the more they have to play with--at least that's the muppets approach!

Can't get enough of the muppets meta-mockery? Here's a list of scenes breaking the fourth wall in muppet movies. Recent sitcoms that routinely break the fourth wall and use self aware humor include 30 Rock, Family Guy, and Scrubs.

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