poem for god
The Woman in Silent Tears
everything beautiful bleeds
5 August 2014
Et in Arcadio Ego
David Albert Solberg
Sorry, We're Closed
Older than Our Bodies
Amorphous Object &
Sundays in Hudson
Fox and Geese
Love in Winter
David Albert Solberg
I Have Made My Own Soul Suffer
A Notice to My Mailman
The Great Conversation: Cultural Change Through YouTube
The telegraph; the telephone; phonographs; television; the radio; communications satellites; the computer; cellular phones; the internet; social media. The advancements of humanity have irrevocably altered our relationships with our fellow man at least 10 times in the past 200 years. In that span, both experts and laymen alike have worried that this technology would negatively affect the way we communicate with one another. And while these con-cerns are not entirely unfounded, they have done little by way of stopping, or slowing down, the evolution of communication. That horse didn’t just leave the barn: it kicked over a lantern on its way out.
These concerns have, not surprisingly, been a focus of contemporary academics. Media analyst and cultural critic, Neil Postman, is one such example, having dedicated a great deal of time and thought to the nature of communication. Postman was not an advocate of almost anything that we would consider to be commonplace today. The thesis of his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, centered around the premise that our culture is fulfilling Aldous Huxley’s prophecy from his novel, A Brave New World, in which we (spoiler alert) amuse ourselves to death.
Postman argued that it all went wrong when we invented the telegraph, because, before then, all we had were books. Telegraphs redefined public discourse: they established and promoted communication that favored the condensed and disjointed message over more substantial information. Telegraphs were predicated on the idea of brevity, and, as such, could not inform or educate the public with regard to issues Postman deemed worthy of discussion, like politics or education. They also eliminated distance as a factor in communicating: proximity was no longer necessary. Postman asserted that the expanded networking allowed by telegraphs did not broaden learning potential or expand traditional boundaries for debate, but, rather, that the ephemerality inherent in telegraphy greatly reduced the nuance of public discourse:
“… telegraph[s] gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity.”
But if telegraphs were the catalyst for context-free information, then television was its mainstream realization. We are visual creatures; sight is our favorite sense with which to process information. The visuals of television added an entirely new and more attractive element to the immediacy of telegraphs, and, needless to say, we were instantly hooked.
Postman called this new society, one living in the midst of irrelevant, context-free information, a “Peek-A-Boo World.” His explanation is comparable to that of the arcade game, Whac- A-Mole, but instead of beating the shit out of rodents, we’re merely watching the scene unfold, clapping each time a new one pops up. And so we’re basically bombarded by an endless amount of trivial factoids, existing in a world of purely entertaining nonsense, like the baby who waits in rapture for mother to remove her hands from her eyes; we don’t have to think about anything, we can just sit and watch for fun. Postman wrote that telegraphs, television and the creation of this Peek-A-Boo World disconnected the general population from the experience of living. Prior to telegraphs, when all we had were books, we could digest and discuss things—we had opinions to share. Postman claimed that “a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past,” and he ultimately argues that telegraphs and TV shows are too trivial to be a part of that discussion.
Anthropologist Michael Wesch shares Postman’s concerns about TV and suburbia. He contends that, at the beginning of what we know to be “modern” society, people were only connected by proximity and television. And on paper this makes sense: with three major networks, PBS and local programming, people were connected through the images they saw, but the problem was that this kept them inside, isolated in their living rooms. Wesch believes that TV is definitely a part of the Peek-A-Boo World, that it severs our ties to each other and takes away depth from The Great Conversation. Postman saw our detachment only getting worse as time passed and information technology evolved, but Wesch disagrees. Because here’s the thing: YouTube is bringing that depth back.
On the surface this appears to be a ridiculous notion. The structure of YouTube suggests that it would be the epitome of our Peek-A-Boo World, even more so than television—it’s like a visual telegraph. And because YouTube videos are, on average, about three and a half minutes long, it requires little-to-no effort to absorb their content. This makes our attention even less important, because we don’t have to concentrate for any extended period of time, and we can pick whatever type of quick, stupid video from which to derive our amusement (the best and most relevant example being something like viral videos). Furthermore, YouTube gives us suggestions for possible entertainment, so any thought or effort we would have to put in to search for a video is rendered moot; we don’t have to tumble down the rabbit hole, it makes sure to find us. This makes Wesch’s shared concerns with Postman that much more surprising, because YouTube sounds like Postman’s idea of what would be the catalyst for the Fahrenheit 451-esque apocalypse that he was probably thinking about when he wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. But Wesch sees YouTube as helping to reestablish a society that operates on communication via “networked individualism.” This means that YouTube shifted our focus from traditional communication based in place-to-place connectivity to communication that is based in person-to-person connectivity. YouTube provides a deep, meaningful connection between individualized creators and audiences in what is effectively a safe haven from the onslaught of suffocating irrelevance from the Peek-A-Boo World. Telegraphs legitimized context-free communication and television exacerbated that communication by adding visuals, but YouTube finally gives meaning to our context-free content; it is has the power to reconcile.
So the question is, how can we have meaning with no context? It seems as though there is a disconnect here between what we know and why it matters. Wesch is not ignorant to this problem, and he solves the “context collapse” of YouTube in terms of anonymity: nobody knows whom they’re talking to or when they’ll be talking to them. It’s impossible to have any idea how (and in what individualized contexts) videos will be interpreted, and this makes YouTube simultaneously, paradoxically, both the most public and the most private space. Without established mutual context, people are able to share information about themselves to an audience that is empathetic and understanding enough to identify with content creators. This gives different meanings to these conversations, even in spite of
Because of this, YouTube is a means by which we can contribute to the Great Conversation. Hardly anything can ever completely disappear once it has been uploaded onto the internet. And even after the video/channel has been taken down, deleted or otherwise removed and forgotten, a copy can probably be found somewhere, which can then be seen and interpre-ted, thus continuing the discourse. This is happening on hundreds of thousands of active channels every day: there is a wealth of information, of experiences and of human life that is preserved online. And so it is clear that, if anything, YouTube has expanded our discussion into a global one, creating countless possibilities for topics and inspiring authors for Postman’s Great Conversation that may have never known that there was a discussion occurring in the first place. But in order to understand the reasons for YouTube’s success, we first have to understand how it works.
In analyzing the factors that contribute to the site’s popularity, Wesch came up with an equation that describes YouTube in terms of the user:
plus (ii) Physical distance
plus (iii) Rare and ephemeral dialogue
equals (iv) Safety in experiencing the human on the screen
The fact of the matter is that you can’t overtly stare at people in real life. There are two main reasons for this (beyond the fact that it’s creepy as hell). The first reason is that the act of staring at someone necessitates some kind of context (the person being stared at doesn’t know why you’re staring at them), and the second reason is that this does the opposite of establishing a personal connection. But because YouTube doesn’t exist either spatially or temporally, the audience has the freedom to experience humanity without fear or anxiety. The audience can safely observe the people on the screen and understand them in terms how they represent themselves to the public.
Wesch claims that YouTube is the solution to a very common problem that causes a lot of tension in mainstream society. The issue is that, in our culture as a whole, what is expressed (the importance of individuality and independence along with how we are marketed to) directly conflicts with what is valued and desired (being a part of a community and fostering personal relationships through authenticity). It bears repeating that YouTube reconciles this tension by networking individuals within a larger community as well as providing honest interactions between the audience and the creator. In real life, this desire for deep and genuine connections comes with constraint, but YouTube doesn’t require the same responsibilities for maintaining a connection that real life does. The prerequisites are different, and so the end result comes quicker.
Wesch has been somewhat disproven, however. As YouTube’s user base has grown, so have the audiences of different content creators. After Google acquired YouTube in 2007, they instituted a program whereby these creators can opt to become “Partners” with YouTube. This partnership allows creators to monetize their videos, getting paid for the number of views they accumulate. Furthermore, as hinted at earlier, the nature of YouTube allows creators to adopt any persona that they wish, regardless of how close that persona is to their actual personality, and this creates an honesty/authenticity dilemma. Once they are employed by YouTube/Google, creators begin to feel the pressure to create content for the purposes of making money, and this is usually done by comporting themselves or framing their videos in a way that will keep their audiences happy and engaged. Tension arises, therefore, from the questionable honesty and authenticity that supposedly fosters personal relationships in a more intimate setting.
And so this partnership between YouTube and content creators has had two very different effects. The first is a problem: the creator-audience relationship eliminated one kind of constraint (of feeling like you’re being judged or under pressure in your interactions with someone), but that constraint has been replaced by the distance felt by the audience as creators become more exclusive with the growth of their channels. And this reveals itself through notoriety: YouTube has created a new type of fame similar to that of the kind instituted by television. This fame is on a much smaller scale and is more accessible than television fame, but it is still fame nevertheless. The second effect is much more positive: YouTube creators have found a way to cultivate large audiences through real connections, and they are able to mobilize support for different charities or causes (e.g., the Project for Awesome campaign) that help real people. Additionally, creators are able to expand outside of YouTube if their respective interests lie elsewhere. Recently, several content creators (such as Grace Helbig and Josh Sundquist) have been publishing books based off of their channels or other hobbies, and this has led to increased interest in these creators and the site itself. YouTube has created a various number of communities that often interact with each other and accomplish collective goals together—not just passive audiences (which supports Wesch’s assertions: this is where telegraphy and television has failed). But the discussion of how YouTube facilitates communication does not end with the connections made between people. It also affects identity. The audience of YouTube includes “you” (i.e., the creator) as well. This environment not only allows audiences to see one as a creator, but it also allows the creator access to themselves. Because YouTube is more personalized than books or TV, it enables a level of hyper self-awareness that is impossible to achieve through traditional media platforms.
Wesch brings up the idea of the “Looking-Glass Self”—learning to understand ourselves by being aware of how others understand us. Creators have the ability to re-watch their old videos and reflect upon who they were at the time of creation and what made them into the people they are now. This leads to a purer form of self-perception: they can understand their own identities in a way that they couldn’t before. But all of this goes back to the problem of authenticity and how creators relate to their audiences. YouTube is a vehicle by which you can Broadcast Yourself to the whole world, but, as it is with every communicative industry, even honesty is a form of production; creators are only as honest as they’re willing to be. But even the potential for honesty makes communication through YouTube desirable and/or attractive: it’s accessible and personal and more responsive than books. There is genuine depth to the conversations taking place. Because no matter what side or identity of the creator is shown, they, as an individual, become connected to actual people, and these relationships stretch across the planet. This has entirely changed the way we think about global communication: the traditional barriers caused by distance are no longer an issue.
YouTube has taken television culture, in which, according to Postman, information is “ a commodity, a ‘thing’ that [can] be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning,” and given it depth. But what if Postman is wrong? What if content is just a byproduct of the mechanisms used to communicate? Media critic Marshall McLuhan asserted this belief in his 1967 book, The Medium is the Message. He advocated that the nature of the media through which we communicate shapes our society more than the content of those messages; i.e., information is irrelevant—the medium that provides the information is what matters. McLuhan contended that, even if vapid, insipid or trite thoughts were made permanent in the culture, it would be less important than what is used to communicate, and that’s what matters here. What this means is that the fact that content creators talk about themselves could very well be unimportant. Discussions on YouTube are quick, casual and devoid of context, but they are also infinitely broad in content and are essentially eternal. YouTube is a “do it yourself” culture, and this creates tension between traditional media outlets now competing with the site (thusly, changing their business models) and YouTube’s participatory nature: recording a three minute video just telling the camera about your day is meaningful simply because you are a regular person making something to share with millions of other people. With YouTube, the nature of the communication gives more meaning to the content, even when that content is meaningless (see: viral videos). But it is this deep contrast in content that makes YouTube important, not only to our society but to the continuous discussion of how media affects communication as well.
And so even if one were to argue that YouTube has yet to be accepted as a mainstream form of communication (though all signs point to that it has), it remains emblematic of two major differences in mass communication. One side of the site is endlessly entertaining, constantly satisfying the need to have something to do as long as it’s not too boring or difficult. The other side networks individuals from all over the world and establishes meaningful connections with people we would never otherwise be able have contact with, much less meet. These individuals collaborate across space, time and culture to produce lengthy and complex dialogues to fuel the Great Conversation. This is the side that matters.
Because the side of this culture that values insipid commentary could lead to a version of Postman’s and Huxley’s endlessly-entertained dystopian future. We could all forgo significant relationships with those around us and turn to double rainbows for comfort. But that would be missing the point. The communication available through YouTube has the power to change the way we look at the world and ourselves. It allows us to focus on collaboration and creation as a vehicle by which to improve and elucidate our own experiences. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but our capability for exploring new perspectives and learning from them is just as endless as our supposed capacity to be entertained. So, yes: we are entertained. But we’re also having one hell of a Conversation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zoe Comingore is a freshman at the University of Rio Grande and is currently in limbo with regard to what direction her studies will take her. She has always enjoyed her literary analysis and writing classes, and she hopes to find a place in that realm someday soon. She strives to pay attention to the world around her at all times and tries to reflect those observations in her writing. She hopes to travel and gain experience through interactions with all different types of people and places in the future.