Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Pump Up The Volume": Lessons about Social Media, Education, and Change

In an interesting coincidence, my post for the University of Venus about why people in higher education should blog (agency and action, people!) came out on the same day that the now-former president of Egypt finally stepped down, a product of a revolution fueled by social media. So while I read comments (ok, one comment) on the post about how futile it was to write about our anger and dissatisfaction, a dictator was brought down by that same seemingly futile anger and dissatisfaction. 

But the comment does bring up a good question: who is really listening? I would argue that if your feelings and perspective are shared by others, then you are speaking to while simultaneously creating a community, and leaving an archive that can be found and read by those who might not even know that such a community even exists. But really, at the end of the day, there is something, as I wrote, really empowering about finding your voice and finally using it honestly and authentically, even if your audience is potentially non-existent. Because you never know what could happen.

The movie Pump Up The Volume came out when I was 12 or 13 years old. It starred Christian Slater, who, at that time, was my super-dreamy dreamboat. And in this movie, more so than say Heathers, he pulled off being both rebellious and insecure, which is like candy to a 13-year-old's fantasy life (that metaphor made no sense). Slater plays quiet, insecure Mark Hunter, a new student at a large high Arizona high school. But at night, he becomes Hard Harry, broadcasting an illegal radio show using the ham radio his parents bought him so he could theoretically talk to his old friends back on the East Coast. As Hard Harry, he behaves outrageously and says outrageous (but truthful) things, things that "the man" doesn't want to hear (and plays awesome music; this movie was my introduction to Leonard Cohen). Mark doesn't have an audience; he broadcasts his show for no one but himself and a theoretical audience of his peers. 
It should be noted that the movie opens with a Billy Idol wanna-be being thrown out of school, along with a couple of other rough looking teens and Hispanics. That same Billy Idol wanna-be is sitting in a field at night and happens to come across the Hard Harry Show. The news of the illicit show and shock jock (Howard Stern wasn't yet in syndication, so I don't even know if the term existed yet) spread like wildfire across the school (the term now would be "going viral"), with students passing around tapes of the show they made themselves. It was bedlam at the school, and soon he was Public Enemy Number One, especially after Hard Harry didn't dissuade a student from committing suicide.

The movie ends with the FCC coming in and shutting down the "illegal" broadcasts (he didn't have a license; which is as laughable as the EPA being the reason that the Ghostbusters were shut down). But before that happens, a sympathetic teacher, informed by questions Hard Harry was asking, uncovers the corruption and fraud going on in the high school; those students who were expelled in the opening scenes were removed because of their low tests scores but the school was still drawing state money for them. It should also be noted that Hard Harry's father was a big-wig working for the school district who was also completely ignorant of the fraud going on under his watch. It was, in fact, the angry and lonely rants of a young teen boy that brought down the system that was failing the students.  After we fade to black, we hear a tentative female voice asking, "Is anyone out there listening?" and she is joined by a number of other young voices, broadcasting themselves, inspired by Hard Harry and the impact he had on his community. 

Now, we have blogs, YouTube, Twitter, facebook, and any number of other means of adding our voice, creating community, and affecting change. And, twenty (gulp, really, this movie is 20 years old) years later, many of the issues the movie addresses, albeit sometimes subtly, have been exploded: focus on test scores, unequal educational opportunities based on race, general fiscal corruption, and the dangers of a powerful and misguided bureaucracy. What goes viral nowadays has more to do with gross-out humor (which Hard Harry did a lot of) and pop culture. But, as we see in Egypt, there is the great potential for ordinary people using their voices for real change. I think Pump Up The Volume can teach us, ahem, volumes about the power of individuals using their voice to create change, especially in education. 

To co-opt the expression from Hard Harry: Blog Hard, everyone, Blog Hard. 


  1. Twenty years?! I just had to look and yes, I still have the soundtrack. For me it was Sonic Youth.

    While I'm skeptical that change can happen from within (dissent can and will get you fired/not rehired/whatever), I think people are starting to realize they have little to lose. So critical mass is definitely building...and yes, I agree, blog hard1

  2. What a cool article! I think so many things have to come together for a change like Egypt to take place, and I'm not sure that life down there is going to be gravy with new leadership, but social media certainly plays a role. But I LOVE the analogy of Pump Up The Volume. We must be the same age. I remember the film well. Great breakdown.

  3. Writing in social media presents a different set of challenges for the broadcaster. Conciseness and Clear Message is an imperative; given that you have less space to work with, unlike traditional broadsheets.

    Word selection is also a factor.

  4. On today's "The Takeaway," there's a discussion about high school students communicating outside of the official school boundaries -

  5. Sonic youth! Yes they are one of the best bands in the 90's love them!


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