YouTube Tour #2, Entertainment: Humor, Spectacle, Self-Referentiality (February 14, 2008)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
This 2008 blog post is connected to my YouTour project where, after teaching the 2007 LFYT class, I attempted to create on YouTube a structure to think through, display, and organize the hundreds of student videos made for the course, which were (like other videos on YouTube) hard to systematize, see, or make sense of via our class page. I created tours around six themes: community/archive, owner/user, vernacular, popularity, entertainment, and education. As was true for the entire project, I was attempting to hack YouTube to force it to do the things I needed as an educator and scholar: organize, track, build, map, and otherwise make randomly displayed information more coherent.
"Anxieties about the debilitating effects of amusement have been around for a very long time. In contemporary usage, the phrase entertainment value usually implies three things: entertainment does have some kind of value; something that has entertainment value isn't otherwise very valuable (not 'That's entertainment!,' in other words, but 'That's just entertainment!'); and, paradoxically, this very lack of value is what gives entertainment its ability to enchant and manipulate both masses and individuals."[cit]

According to "self-proclaimed leader of the Situationist International,"[cit] Guy Debord: "The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than 'that which appears is good, that which is good appears.' The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance."[cit]

DIY was a term embraced by a group of anticonsumer nonconformist punks before it was a TV shopping network.

Media activism has long played a part in international social movements with diverse goals and tactics including: empowering local people to tell their own stories, documenting social movements for the historical record, intervening in mainstream discourse to ensure fair representation, engaging in media literacy education, creating alternative media, and engaging in research about the role of media in development and activism.
This was the first thing we learned in the class. Although it isn't any good for education, YouTube is killer for entertainment, fun, wasting time. The nature of its successful entertainment is not much different from what audiences loved before it; in fact, a considerable amount of its video is made by media professionals, crossing platforms legally or through the work of a fan: TV shows, music videos, bands recorded live, commercials. What differs most is platform and duration: YouTube is an at-home or mobile viewer-controlled delivery system of delectable media morsels.

I would suggest that YouTube entertainment relies upon, integrates and condenses three effective forms from previous media—humor, spectacle, and self-referentiality—to create a new kind of video organized by ease, plenitude, convenience, and speed (this does sound like a TV commercial endorsement, I know).

The quintessential YouTube video is easy to get, in both senses of the word: a simple-to-understand idea reduced to an icon or gag that is also painless to get to. Both spectacle and self-referentiality are key to this staple ease: a visual or aural sensation (crash, breast, celebrity's face, signature beat, extreme talent, pathos) often being the iconic center or totality of a video (spectacle), or an already recognizable bite of media holding the same function (self-referentiality)—understandable in a heartbeat, knowable without thinking, this is media already encrusted with social meaning or feeling.

YouTube videos are often about other YouTube videos which are most often about popular culture. They steal, parody, mash up, and rework recognizable forms, thus maintaining standard styles and tastes. Thus, humor enters through parody, the play on an already recognizable form, or slapstick (a category of spectacle). (Interestingly, spectacle and humor were definitive of early cinema, the developing use of an early time's new medium that also spoke across class and continent, in a simplistic visual lingua franca. However, typically, ironic self-referentiality is understood to occur in an art form during its later or even last [post] stages.)

The entertainment of YouTube creates a postmodern TV of distraction, where discrete bites of cinema controlled and seen by the discrete eye of one viewer are linked intuitively, randomly, or through systems of popularity, in an endless chain of immediate but forgettable gratification that can only be satisfied by another video. I imagine that this must inevitably lead to two unpleasant, if still entertaining, outcomes: distraction puts an end to action, and surface fun drowns out depth.

If YouTube videos (and I am reflecting primarily on the dominant or conventional uses of the medium), or the site itself, are to be used for anything other than numbing entertainment (and certainly on NicheTube, this is happening with some [small] success: more on this forthcoming in later posts), it is critical that the language of YouTube develop to include context, history, theory, and community, and by this I mean both the architecture of the site and the form and content of the videos themselves.

At 24/7: A DIY Video Summit, which I attended last week at USC, the media activists on my panel wanted to discuss just this (new) state of affairs. Certainly more people are making and viewing media, access to channels of production and distribution are rapidly growing to an almost-incomprehensible scale. However, even the most moving of videos needs to be connected to something (other than another short video)— people, community, ideas, other videos to which it has a coherent link—if it is to create action over distraction, knowledge instead of free-floating info-zaps.

You may be wondering what I make of the "entertainment" value of millions of unique regular people speaking about their lives, and to each other, in talking head close-ups (the style I most often use on YouTube). While often used as a statement against corporate media, I would suggest that humor (self-mocking, ironic), spectacle (of authenticity, of pathos, of individuality), and self-referentiality (to the vernacular of YouTube) also combine in this format to create the entertainment value of this staple form, YouTube's bad videos. But I'll hold on this for later posts.