What Good is the ‘You’ in YouTube? Cyberspectacle and Subjectivity
December 16th, 2008
The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.” – Guy Debord (1994, p. 15)
Since the publication of The Society of the Spectacle in 1967, our culture has become more spectacular than ever: music, talk, still images, moving images, and marketing pitches bear down on us in a continual shroud of commodification, pervading both public and private spaces, glowing from screens that are larger than ever and simultaneously smaller and more portable. We are plugged into iPods and cell phones and BlackBerries; we are continually entertained, hailed as desiring to be entertained, and in search of the next leisure distraction. According to scholars Best and Kellner (1999), Debord’s spectacular society has become an interactive “megaspectacle”, of which the Internet, with its explosion of streaming video capabilities, is a huge part. Although often celebrated as an open, democratic space with a multitude of possibilities for empowerment and resistance to the forces of cultural domination and physical repression, a half hour spent online, navigating the navel-gazing blogs, celebrity gossip sites, porn ads, and endless invitations to spend money, can feel more like an intimate encounter with the dazzling, distracting spectacle of Debord’s writing. The spectacle which Debord sees as pervading all spaces of lived experience, with its never-ending seduction into continuous, alienated amusement and consumption, has found a ready home online.
YouTube is the web’s most popular free digital video hosting service; it was launched in 2005, and it currently receives 20 million visitors a month, with 100 million videos viewed and 65,000 videos uploaded daily (see Trier, 2007, p. 409; White, 2006/2007). The YouTube website is “a passive website:” users are free to upload any content they choose without running it by any kind of gatekeeper (although censoring activities do emerge, as discussed below) (YouTube Terms of Service, 2007). The YouTube slogan is “Broadcast Yourself”, an encouraging motto that calls up associations of a democratic Internet commons where all voices can speak and be heard. Here, it says, is a space for all individuals to create and control a channel of their own, transmitted to the world.
As with every new media form, however, tensions arise between enthusiasm for its liberatory possibilities and the very real material and ideological structures within which it operates and from which it develops. YouTube as a cultural space is ripe for examining these tensions. To this end, I see the “good” in my paper’s title as posing a threefold question. The first involves Debord’s use of the word “good” to describe the spectacle’s insistence on its own worth. As the opening quote states, in the society of the spectacle, all that appears on the spectacular cultural landscape is deemed good, without judgment about its authenticity or its relation to either lived experience or the economic power structures from which it is produced. In the language of the spectacle, then, is YouTube reckoned “good”?
This question is closely related to my second use of the word “good”, that is, the definition of a “good” as a commodity. A “good” in this sense is an object bought, sold, produced and traded, one with use value or exchange value. What is the relationship between the individuals visiting and contributing to the YouTube website and the powerful institutions of the traditional culture industry? Are YouTube users agent-subjects representing themselves outside of the machinery of marketing and entertainment, or are they a kind of alienated worker, laboring for the culture industry in their “leisure” time? Can the homemade videos and vlogs uploaded onto YouTube (as well as their creators, who often appear in them) be termed commodities?
The third way of asking if the users of YouTube are “good” arises from the perspective of those who look to new media and new communication technologies as potential tools in resisting dominant hegemonic ideologies and power structures. In this sense, the “good” of the “you” in the YouTube space depends on individuals’ use of the space for subversive purposes. Can the spectacle contain criticism of itself? Are YouTubers using the site as a political tool? It would be naïve to deny YouTube users any agency at all, but what types of agency are they granted? Is YouTube a space for dismantling and talking back to the spectacle, or is it the manifestation of a new, even more powerfully seductive cyberspectacle? It is in teasing out answers to these questions, and in exploring the different meanings of the “good” of YouTube and its users, that I aim to draw conclusions about how new media forms struggle to place themselves, and their users, within cultural spaces and our consumerist system.
YouTube as Spectacle
College guy #1: Okay, we need to go to the grocery store.
College guy #2: But that’s so boring! How am I going to update my Facebook status? Drew is shopping for groceries? That is so lame!
College guy #1: Dude, you really can’t live your life based on an imagined Facebook profile status. It’s just not healthy.
(Overheard in New York, 2007)
Teen girl #1: I really feel like our relationship is progressing. There’s a closeness that wasn’t there before.
Teen girl #2: Awww, really?
Teen girl #1: Yeah, he added me on MySpace.
(Overheard Everywhere, 2007)
Debord (1994) writes that the spectacular society is one in which we are daily surrounded by an immense cacophony of sound and image: the Spectacle. We no longer experience life directly, but have our life mediated through the images around us. Experience becomes commodity, time becomes commodity, our social interactions become commodity; the spectacular replaces the real and authentic. The spectacle that surrounds us seduces us into a pseudo-life, making it difficult, if not impossible, to break free or resist its power.
According to Debord, the spectacle is not simply a collection of images meant to entertain us and sell us products, nor the commodities themselves: the spectacle is the institutions of consumer-based capitalism and the ideological strategies they employ in order to obscure their own workings as well as the constant images and sounds around us. The “spectacle is the chief product of present-day society” (Debord, 1994, p. 16). It is “a world view transformed into an objective force” which works upon our bodies, and to which we are helpless to speak (ibid, p. 13). The images of the spectacle have overtaken our lives and our authentic lived experiences have been negated. Society now values appearance above all else, and this state of being is passively accepted, even welcomed, on the part of the masses, wrapped as it is in entertainment and distraction.
The spectacle promises an earthbound paradise, accessible through the continual consumption of commodities. It is a permanent and self-renewing opiate, the “bad dream of modern society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep” (Debord, 1994, 13). In the society of the spectacle, there is no “liberation from work.” Drawing on theorists Horkheimer and Adorno’s (1993) thesis that “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work,” Debord (1994) writes that “all real activity has been forcibly channeled into the global construction of the spectacle” (p. 22). Even our leisure time can be seen as more labor for the culture industry (what Debord calls the spectacle and its institutions): “alienated consumption is added to alienated production as an inescapable duty of the masses” (29). This idea dovetails nicely with the activities of YouTube users, as videos made and viewed for “fun” become part of the spectacularization of everyday life.
Another problem that Debord sees with this society is that a spectacular un-reality replaces real community and social relationships. He writes that the spectacle is “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 12). The spectacle feeds separation, alienation, and isolation. The masses may feel a sense of unity, but this impression is false: “Spectators are linked only by a one-way relationship to the very center that maintains their isolation from each other. The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness” (Debord, 1994, p. 22). Although YouTube is not the one-way channel of television or film, it does necessarily isolate its many users, each in their own private spaces in front of their own screens, leaving comments and clips that float out to other unseen users. YouTube is akin in this way to much of web culture; however, the site’s basis in image and sound provides at once greater spectacle and a greater sense of intimacy with users than chat rooms or blogs (YouTube’s vloggers are discussed later). One could argue that the spectacle of YouTube (since it is not simply a one-way channel) increases the illusion of unity and community while maintaining the absolute need for separation and isolation.
There are other ways in which Debord’s descriptions of the spectacle fit nicely with many aspects of YouTube. The millions of video clips uploaded from existing television shows, music videos, and movies (both those posted by copyright holders like NBC and Warner Brothers, as well as the millions of unauthorized or “pirated” clips) mean that YouTube can be read as a simple extension of existing spectacular spaces meant to entertain and distract. The website is structured for instantaneous immersion in a variety of moving images and sounds, as the homepage offers twenty videos with screen captures and short descriptions of each to immediately catch the viewer’s attention. There are tabs labeled “Featured Videos” and “Featured Channels” if none of these highlighted videos catch the viewer’s interest, as well as a search engine for finding videos by keyword.
Most videos are around three or four minutes. YouTube limits the length of videos in an attempt to block pirated material (Jones, 2006), but this restriction at the structural level has the effect of contributing to a never-satisfied need for more clips (more spectacle) since each clip is so short. The short-format clip is also deceptive in its invitation to simply ‘stop by’ YouTube: viewers wander from clip to clip, three minutes here, another three there, until hours have gone by. At the end of viewing a video clip, the user is offered the choice to watch it again, or to watch other videos based on common content (a Christina Aguilera video will suggest other Christina Aguilera videos, a home video of a puppy will offer other dog-themed videos). These linked-content videos roll by within the frame of the video viewer and are posted on a scroll-down menu to its the right. This structure means that not only is the viewer encouraged to keep participating in viewing videos, but they are also gently guided to remain within a certain genre, insulated from shocks or unpleasant surprises. Adorno and Horkheimer (1993) write that the “liberation which amusement promises is freedom from thought” (online pagination) and the architecture of the YouTube website provides just this amusement/liberation.
The millions of video clips on YouTube, both industry-produced and original, offer up a continuous cacophony of seductive, empty noise designed to entertain and distract: spectacle in all its glory, delivered into our private homes and intimate spaces. The short-form structure of the videos encourages viewers to spend large amounts of time on the site, since committing to one short clip does not feel like a huge obligation; at the same time, the recommendations that follow each video’s end encourage continuous viewing. The follow-up suggestions go on and on, keeping viewers in an endless loop of paths crisscrossing the YouTube landscape, on an infinite search for resolution and satisfaction. Millions of video clips await the click of one’s mouse or trackpad. The structure of YouTube provides a never-ending parade of images to be settled into like a “medicinal bath” of relaxation and amusement (ibid).
This is another aspect of the spectacle that fits with YouTube: the false sense of freedom that users feel, the belief that with their mouse clicks they are navigating a space of endless choice. Visitors to the website feel that they have the freedom to wander where they will and in some sense they do. Online “branching-type” or “menu-based” interactivity means that each user can navigate a unique path through the digital space by choosing between hyperlinks (Manovich, 2001, p. 38). However, the structure of the YouTube site steers users onto certain paths and previously-blazed trails: the tabs for Most Viewed, Most Discussed, Most Linked, and Top Rated, as well as the recommended follow-up clips, all guide viewers to watch the most commonly-accessed videos, gently dissuading them from even using the search engine to stray into less-traveled areas. In addition, registered YouTube members are allowed to “favorite” videos (an activity James Trier labels “cool gathering” (p.410), playing off the terminology of No Logo’s “cool hunting”)1, clustering their recommended videos on personal pages in acts of curatorship that allow other viewers to follow their suggestions for clips to watch.
The networked structure of YouTube means that the experience of choosing videos to view (channel switching) is different than flipping TV channels, but it is unclear if this practice is more freeing, since many users are following trails left by other users. New media theorist Lev Manovich (2001) writes that “New media objects assure users that their choices – and therefore their underlying thoughts and desires – are unique, rather than preprogrammed and shared with others” (p. 42). Users are given the illusion of mastery and choice in their navigations through cyberspace (Manovich uses the figures of the flâneur and the explorer as metaphors for the way users think of themselves in cyberspace 2) (ibid, p. 270). Even without top-down censorship (although this does occur on YouTube, to be discussed later), networking and the viewing recommendations allow users to avoid undesired content (violence, different cultures, even different viewpoints). It is difficult to argue for the libratory potential of a space that allows users to follow marked paths that lead only to spaces with which they are already familiar and comfortable.
Trier (2007) references Marshall McLuhan in labeling YouTube a “cool” (high in participation) media form: “the search [for clips] involves participating in a process of discovery rather than being involved in a more passive, spectatorial (or to use McLuhan’s term, ‘hot’) engagement” (p. 410). However, YouTube’s structure also encourage a passive engagement with its space3, and in fact, Lev Manovich (2001) argues against the characteristic of interactivity as being necessarily progressive or libratory:
When we use the concept of ‘interactive media’ exclusively in relation to computer-based media, there is the danger that we will interpret ‘interaction’ literally, equating it with physical interaction between a user and a media object (pressing a button, choosing a link, moving the body), at the expense of psychological interaction (p. 57).
Reminding us that all texts are interactive to some degree (dependent on the intellectual energy the viewer brings to it), Manovich (2001) references Althusser’s concept of interpellation to argue that what appears to be a unique experience or identity could actually be the hailing of ideology (p. 61). “Now interactive media asks us to click on a highlighted sentence to go to another sentence. In short, we are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations . . . we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own” (ibid). In YouTube’s landscape, this means that choice is constricted by those paths built into the site’s architecture and those encouraged by curator-users.
The structure of the YouTube site does not just give suggestions for viewing; there are also real restrictions on the content of clips. This is not the entirely democratic space of the commons, but one that exists within material and ideological power structures. YouTube pledges to remove material that falls into categories such as “obscene, pornographic, racially or ethnically offensive” (although deleting comments left about specific videos is up to the member who uploaded that video), as well as content that “infringes on another’s intellectual property rights” (YouTube Terms of Service). Repeat infringers are banned. YouTube members can also flag certain videos as “inappropriate”, making them available only for those viewers who have created an account and self-identified themselves as being over 184. This self-policing of YouTube members initiates a push for conformity and leaves less space for radical voices.
The other real restriction on YouTube content has to do with unauthorized copyrighted material. YouTube is currently being sued by Viacom for allowing so much of its copyrighted material to flourish on the site, and YouTube consistently removes clips when asked by copyright holders. Because of the copying capabilities of new digital media, the traditional entertainment industries (the culture industry) are using a narrower and narrower definition of “fair use” to go after individuals who copy, distribute, or use copyrighted texts. According to film scholar Peter Decherney (2007), we are moving toward a permission culture “in which every use of copyrighted material is asked and paid for” (p. 118). Such a culture “limits academic freedom, artistic freedom, and the freedom to record and criticize culture” (ibid). Fair use is normally decided on a case-by-case basis, but lawsuits like Viacom’s negate that tradition by suing for any and all content usage, no matter how individual texts are drawing on the copyrighted material.
YouTube does attempt to create, or at least feed the illusion of, community: it has tabs marked ‘Community’ and ‘Featured Communities’ on its homepage. Debord says that the idea of any community in the spectacular society is false, but the illusion of community and closeness on YouTube is aided by the video shots of vloggers taken by their computer cameras. The Internet seems like an intimate medium: most vlogs are shot within a private, domesticated space (such as a bedroom) using close-up shots. Distance is collapsed, making the people on our computer screens seem even more real and the interaction more authentic, since close-up is the “close personal distance . . . at which ‘one can hold or grasp the other person’ and therefore also the distance between people who have an intimate relation with each other” (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2005, p. 130). Vlogging gives viewers a false impression of intimacy, exactly what Debord described as social interactions mediated through technology and spectacle. Vlogging, although more visual, is also less of a dialogue than the conversations occurring in blogs and chatrooms (YouTube video responses are often limited to short comments: “typically brief and not terribly enlightening” (Hilderbrand, 2007). It is important to remember that vloggers have the option of editing their videos before choosing to upload them; how can we then say that these are authentic social interactions rather than semblances of reality? This “telepresence” (Manovich, 2001, p. 165) of being present in a physical space while also placing your body in virtual space, in a remote location and across disjointed time, is “the world the spectacle holds up to view is at once here and elsewhere” (Debord, 1994, p. 26), the spectacle collapsing time and distance and crushing reality.
All this is proof, then, that the space of YouTube fits Debord’s Society of the Spectacle framework snugly. YouTube’s lurkers (non-members who enter the site only to view clips and who are not permitted to leave comments, upload, or “gather” videos) and its more active users (uploaders of copyrighted material, both pirates and copyright holders, curators and guides) are feeding the Spectacle. The structure of YouTube’s website encourages continuous and passive viewership of the spectacular, offering up a “medicinal bath” in which any sense of community or authentic social relationship is false. The myth of YouTube as democratic host to any and all content is just that, a myth, since it readily removes or restricts offensive or claimed-ownership video clips. Because of YouTube’s swift acquiescence to take-down requests by copyright holders, its reliance on the mainstream media for source material, and its policy on “obscene” material, media scholar Lucas Hilderbrand calls YouTube the most “industry-friendly” streaming video website, and ultimately “a commercial endeavor.” YouTube, then, is just another facet of Debord’s spectacle.
Cracks in the Spectacle
However, this cannot be the whole story. YouTube videos are consumed, but they are not commodities in the traditional sense; they are not paid for monetarily. In addition, Debord’s vision of the spectacular society does not account for subjective experience and individual agency, or for differences in individual texts. In his view, all those living under and within the spectacle are one duped mass, and all images of the spectacle are interchangeable. We are all passive before the power of the spectacle, and “in passively consuming spectacles, one is disengaged from actively producing one’s life . . . individuals could directly produce their own life, culture, and forms of social interaction” (Best and Kellner, 1999, p. 133) but they do not. However, isn’t the production of their own culture just what many YouTubers are attempting to do?
YouTube members are not passive. Although it cannot be said that their activity is necessarily liberating, the question is in what ways do YouTubers use the site, besides the previously-discussed lurkers and uploaders of unedited copyrighted material not their own? Two of the more popular kinds of original YouTube video uploads are vlogs (a kind of diary entry in video format)7, and clips by performance artists (musicians, singers, poets, directors, actors, comedians, animators) displaying their talents. Are vloggers and their vlogs, which add to the cacophony of images, spectacle or subjects? Can they be both? Are the YouTube users who use the site to promote their not-as-yet-commodified selves already commodities?
Let Me Entertain You: Vloggers, Online Celebrity, and the Next Big Thing
You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.
— Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman), To Die For
As philosophers Hegel and Benveniste remind us, an “I” needs a “you.” Steven Best and Douglas Kellner wrote in 1999 that the more recent form of interactive megaspectacle seems to include a “deep-seated voyeurism and narcissism . . . in which individuals have a seemingly insatiable lust to become part of the spectacle and involve oneself in it more intimately” (p.148). YouTube fulfills this desire even more fully than, say, reality TV, since participation is accessible to more people.
Debord would say that, for viewers, vlogs are spectacle, providing a false sense of intimacy and further facilitating our alienation from true social interactions while simultaneously adding to the spectacular din of images and sound. Is the subjective experience of a vlogger more liberating?
If it is a Hegelian need for recognition as a subject from other subjects that leads individuals to broadcast themselves through YouTube, inserting their own bodies into the spectacular flow of online images, contributing to the spectacle, laboring for it, then this labor is also a kind of labor for the traditional institutions of the culture industry. Corporations may no longer need to hire as many “cool hunters”8 but can simply hop online and use YouTube as a harvesting ground for what is popular, hip, or cutting-edge. Our Hegelian desire to be recognized as subject is thus used by the spectacular society to add to itself by commodifying even our very bodies.
Another kind of recognition is demanded by the performers who post videos: recognition from the culture industry itself (the desire to be ‘discovered’). Peter Decherney (2007) makes an argument that YouTube and other online film sites offer alternative venues to showcase artistic work, working around traditional distributors and putting power in the hands of filmmakers instead of traditional gatekeepers. However, despite the idea of Youtube as a noncommercial utopia, in the comments below clips, YouTube members often urge performers to turn commercial. Self-promotion without the specific exchange of money in the present, but with the hope or possibility of such an exchange in the future, is an acceptable form of non-commercial commodification of one’s body or work. YouTube’s relationship to the traditional culture industry is still being negotiated. The sense of YouTube as a grassroots space for talent to flourish unsullied by commercialism is in tension with a desire for the culture industry’s stamp of approval and acceptance (for example, some YouTubers express the idea that there are online talents who deserve to be “bigger” than YouTube). YouTube does offer performers the option of not participating in traditional entertainment channels by building a fandom outside of the culture industry (also the founding vision of the website MySpace), but that same fandom, as cultural capital, can then be used (and is often expected to be used) as leverage to win a place within the traditional industry.
In Debord’s society of the spectacle, “individuals consume a world fabricated by others rather than producing one of their own” (Best and Kellner, 1999, p. 132). However, as this discussion of vloggers and YouTubers hoping to be discovered and taken in by the culture industry shows, it does not necessarily follow that even when individuals produce their own texts will such work be liberating. In both the first and second senses of the word “good” then, we see the spectacle unshaken and in control. For YouTube’s viewers and lurkers, it is all spectacle all the time, albeit with an illusion of freedom and a unique experience. For uploaders (vloggers and pirates and performers), YouTube allows them to contribute to the spectacle, inserting their own bodies into the spectacular space. YouTube vloggers work for the spectacle by providing more empty noise under an illusion of human connection, and performers work for the spectacle by contributing to YouTube’s medicinal bath while validating everyone’s wish to participate in the culture industry. Under the of all this, is escape or resistance possible? We now turn to our third use of the word “good.” Can YouTube be at all liberatory? Weight
Subversive YouTubing: Mashers, Jammers and Accidental Witnesses
Debord’s descriptions of the spectacle do not allow for subcultures, distinct texts, or individual agency: the duped are a solid mass and the spectacle has no cracks. He does not allow for lived experience or subjective reaction to the spectacular society, discounting that people do react and there is disunity and resistance within any culture, that texts can be differentiated and they can be in conflict. One of the more productive effects of YouTube’s ‘suggested viewing’ tabs and search engine is that its videos call out to one another, answer each other, and speak back to some of the spectacular images that surround us. Original texts and subverted texts co-exist side by side. For example, two re-edited trailers for the films The Fast and the Furious (“The Fast and the Curious”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSVniGAD9cY) and 300 (“It’s Raining 300 Men”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pi2t58CrmbU) subvert their originating texts by highlighting the homoerotic overtones therein. These videos turn the dominant masculinity of the films into subcultural masculinities, and highlight how mainstream texts can be read in ways that challenge dominant ideologies. These re-edited trailers are not an example of consumer culture incorporating and selling some version of counterculture, since they are not traditional products and are user-created instead of industry-produced.
The question then becomes: what spaces does YouTube provide for resistance to the culture industry, and how are these taken up by users? Where can one locate critical thought on YouTube? I see three main categories in this regard: accidental witnesses, mashers, and jammers. All three have to do with what Best and Kellner (1999) term “producing” or “constructing cybersituations,” those activities which involve “the appropriation, use, and reconstruction of technologies against the spectacle and other forms of domination, alienation, and oppression” (p. 149). For Debord, in 1967, the spectacle could not be a productive space, but new technologies are blurring the lines between producer/consumer, activity/passivity, and conformity/opposition. How do these play out within the space of YouTube?
The first category, accidental witnesses, are YouTube clips made possible by the now widespread use of digital and cell phone cameras: amateur videos capturing shocking or horrific social/political events that either become recognized by legitimate news outlets because of their viral spread online, or that create such a grassroots response that governments or institutions are forced to respond even without mainstream news coverage. Examples of the former category would be George Allen’s “macaca” comment during the 2006 election and the 2007 student tasering at UCLA. An example of the latter category would be the Chinese soldier sniper shooting of Tibetan pilgrims (Jones). The incredible coincidence that was the capture of the Rodney King beating in 1992 is more likely than ever to occur now, and situations where power oppresses can be more easily recognized and protested using viral video.
The second category of YouTube user with subversive potential is the masher. A masher is someone who creates new videos through the technique of bricolage. Bricolage “refers to the activity of taking consumer products and commodities and making them one’s own by giving them new meaning. This has the potential to create resistant meanings out of commodities” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2001, p. 350). In the YouTube world, this could mean a fanvid that creates a new Harry Potter story constructed entirely from existing film clips (“The Power Within”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaqF4ZTRHhM), an illicit imagined romance between two characters from a movie (“The Girl of My Dreams Is Giving Me Nightmares”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zj45qAg7B90.), or a music video featuring a slash romance between two brothers on a popular television show (“Kiss My Eyes”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_DDGu_yL98).
Although mashers and their videos do not have the power to change production processes, these mash-ups and the online space to display them mean that dominant texts are now more open to ideological attack. In the “ongoing struggle for possession of a text – a struggle over its meanings and potential meanings” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2001, p. 66) waged between producers and viewers, these “mashed” texts are examples of readings resistant to ideological interpellations that are then fed back into the cultural discourse. Mashing multiplies the ways a text can be received by different subjects, thereby complicating interpellation and disrupting channels of dominant ideology9. Just as YouTube allows the material creation and dissemination of the alienation of the self and one’s relationship to the spectacle (a user filming and uploading himself lip-syncing to a hit song, for example), so does it allow the material creation and dissemination of subversive textual readings (poachings) through digital bricolage. These resistant texts disrupt channels of dominant ideology, and are not part of the selling of subversion by consumer industries.
Educator James Trier connects YouTube to the practice of “culture jamming” (Cool Engagements with YouTube, 2007), a phrase from the book No Logo by Naomi Klein (1999). I am indebted to him for linking the concept of culture jamming with the space of YouTube, although I disagree with his application of this link. Klein only discusses culture jamming in the context of public space advertising and marketing, without mentioning its other possibilities for talking back and subverting existing mass media texts by altering them. This is exactly the concept I want to apply to YouTube users who I label “jammers.”10 If there is hope for resistance to the spectacle’s passifying images, it is here. Jamming is mashing with a subversive intent.
In No Logo, Klein (1999) describes culture jamming as the practice of altering a mass media text within its original media in order to subvert its message in a rejection of marketing’s model of information flow, that is:
“the idea that marketing . . . must be passively accepted as a one-way information flow . . . The most sophisticated culture jams are not stand-alone ad parodies but interceptions – counter-messages that hack into a corporation’s own method of communication to send a message starkly at odds with the one that was intended. The process forces the company to foot the bill for its own subversion” (p. 281).
Through jamming, a deeper truth is revealed; in fact, culture jamming has some roots in Guy Debord and the Situationists, “who first articulated the power of a simple détournement, defined as an image, message or artifact lifted out of its context to create a new meaning” (ibid, p. 282). Cutting and pasting, pastiche, bricolage – what are these but the tools of video editing? And what is YouTube if not a space that allows for people to articulate rejections of the one-way flow model when it comes to mass media texts? Trier explicitly connects YouTube to the practice of subversive détournement when he recommends educators use culture-jamming YouTube clips to teach critical thinking skills about our spectacular culture (for example, one user’s video response to a Wrangler ad that incorporated Credence Clearwater Revival’s song “Fortunate Son” in its quest to sell jeans) (Trier, The Spectacle and Detournement, 2007).
I would also include in the category of “jammer” other marginalized voices who may or may not work solely with existing media texts, since, as Klein elaborates, “culture jamming is anything, essentially, that mixes art, media, parody and the outsider stance” (Klein, 1999, p. 282). These would include YouTube videos like the poet beausia talking back to celebrity Rosie O’Donnell (“an open letter to all the rosie o’donnells”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJCkHu3trKc), or a short documentary on African-American teen girls and beauty ideals, created by a teen herself (“A Girl Like Me”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjy9q8VekmE). I consider these texts culture jamming, since they use the tools of spectacle to speak to power.
Trier is optimistic about YouTube as a tool for culture jamming and détournement. It is true that YouTube makes these clips and projects more accessible to more people than before. However, the spectacle itself is simultaneously more pervasive because of the Internet and sites like YouTube. Klein herself questions the larger effects of culture jamming, noting the tensions between the activities of the prankster and those of the revolutionary. She asks if “play and pleasure themselves [are] revolutionary acts, as the Situationists might argue? Is screwing up the culture’s information flows inherently subversive?” (Klein, , p. 282). She tends toward the pessimistic, concluding that “culture jamming is more a drop in the bucket than spanner in the works” (ibid, p. 297). YouTube and digital technology make culture jamming a viable activity for many more people than an action like altering a billboard. Digital culture jamming is also applicable to more sophisticated texts, and more of them. This in itself, however, does nothing to effect changes in people’s perspectives or the structures of power. Jamming uses the spectacle to disrupt both itself and passive reception of its images, but only if individuals consciously employ these YouTube videos as a tool to do so.
The distinction between creative and empowering cybersituations vs. (pseudo)interactive and disempowering spectacle is . . . often difficult to make.
– Best and Kellner, 1999, p. 151
In Debord’s view, we are living in a pseudo-reality mediated by the Spectacle. All our social relationships are experienced through images and commodities, and every aspect of life is an alienated copy of what is authentic. We are unable to escape the spectacle or control our own lives. The only solution is a radical subversion that shakes the spectacle and exposes it for what it is. Best and Kellner (1999) have suggested that Guy Debord and the Situationalists would have found the Internet a site rich with possibilities for détournement, a space in which a multiplicity of subjective voices otherwise silenced by the corporate media are able to engage in subversive political action (ibid). However, their enthusiasm is tempered: each new technology (like YouTube), unanticipated by Debord, “involves the creation of cultural spaces and forms that present exciting possibilities for creativity and empowerment of individuals, as well as novel forms of seduction and domination” (ibid). In terms of the Internet as a whole, I think, the struggle goes on. Of YouTube in particular, however, it is hard to believe that Debord would have had much positive to say about this particular space, a space whose primary purpose is entertainment and diversion.
Debord worried that spectacle was replacing community structures. “Are we to imagine a sort of two-track model of the social condition, with the spectacle above, the community below, the spectacle suppressing but also ineffectively attempting to reconstitute community?” (Berman, Pan, and Paul, 1990-1991). The Internet does foster community in some ways (and the fact that this community is mediated through screens is not as direly tragic as Debord would have us believe), although my sense is that blogs and blog communities offer more in this regard than does YouTube. Blogs can foster more authentic communities, more serious discussion of political issues, and more political action among smaller, more intimate groups than those of the YouTube flâneurs11. Therefore, blogs offer greater opportunity for political change and subversive resistance than in the more spectacular online space of YouTube.
In returning to my three questions of YouTube’s “good”, I believe that YouTube is a powerful example of spectacle in contemporary society, distracting and entertaining passive viewers. Is the “you” in YouTube’s a commodity? I think the answer is yes and no, an answer made vague and complicated by the shifting structures of the traditional culture industry and new media forms. It does allow users to offer themselves up as “goods” to the culture industry, however, it is also a space that presents a challenge and a small-scale threat to the traditional culture industry, which is attempting to control and commodify it.
In terms of the third use of the word “good” and the question of YouTube’s progressive potential, YouTube does allow marginalized voices a place to be heard among the vast wasteland of Debord’s Spectacle. Voices appear here that would not otherwise be heard. The problem is that these “videos float amidst thousands of others, carried along like detritus in a fast-moving, constantly updated stream of material” (Jones). They can be used as subversive tools, but it is up to individuals, subjects within the spectacle, to pluck them out of the stream and use them to some greater end. That is why it is important that YouTube videos do not just exist on the YouTube website: they can be embedded in blogs, news sites, and political action sites. YouTube’s political possibilities are rarely taken up within its borders, but its political possibilities extend beyond those borders. YouTube may not offer opportunity for changing the structures of institutions, and it may not create an army of subversive revolutionaries, but it does give jammers and political activists an effective tool for reaching larger audiences.
What is the subject’s position on YouTube? Is YouTube “hot” or “cool”, liberatory or repressive, spectacle or subversion? There is no one answer to these questions, as so much depends on the users’ interactions (both physical and mental) with the space and form of this particular website. Much of it is empty spectacle. However, unlike on film or television or radio, the subject on YouTube (both as viewer and participant) is not only an economic subject involved in a one-way dialogue with the culture industry. YouTube users are consumers, producers, lurkers, diarists, artists, fans, guides, narcissists, critics, revolutionaries, and jesters. I do believe that streaming online video and mobile digital technologies are useful tools in resisting and subverting the powers that be. However, although the revolution may be uploaded onto YouTube, it will not start there.
1 – It should be noted that Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on ‘cool hunting’ preceded Klein’s work (Gladwell, 1997).
2 – The intimate nature of many of the uploaded vlogs adds an extra dose of voyeurism to the experience of YouTube flaneurie: one strolls along through the online landscape, opening random people’s windows and entering their domestic spaces, rather than encountering and observing them in public spaces.
3 – On p. 285 of his book, Manovich discusses “the continuities between new media and the old.” It must be considered that if new media is born from the language of old media, like film and TV (and they continue to feed into each other, as with action films and video games), then many of us must interact with YouTube as we do with television, with very little intellectual engagement. (Manovich, 2001).
4 – There is something both lost and gained by the decision to become a YouTube member, somewhat akin to Manovich’s distinction between the figures of explorer and flâneur. Only registered members can upload videos, comment on others’ videos, and “favorite” or rate clips (taking on the role of explorer or curator). The unregistered flâneur-user remains anonymous, without the power to influence other users but also without contributing further to the spectacle.
5 – To the industry, unlimited free distribution of their copyrighted content undermines the profit model, but there is no question that the entertainment industry will have to adjust somehow to new digital media. What would happen if Viacom allowed consumers use of 70% free content (to pique interest in the full text but still allow for fan practices that foster profit)? Would a community already used to 4- or 6- or 10-minute pieces of text adjust accordingly? Would Hollywood have to innovate surprising twist endings to the unavailable 30%? Would different YouTube users collaborate to each access a different 70%, thereby allowing dissemination of the whole text? Digital media is moving the industry and users into unknown territory and changing how we interact with media texts.
6 – The virulent responses to the appearance of YouTube member ‘greenteagirlie’, suspected by many longer-term YouTube members of being a corporate shill, attests to this. Indeed, many YouTubers spend time and energy policing the number of hits and recommendations that other video clips receive, posting exposés of those they deem to be somehow cheating.
7 – Authenticity has become a question around YouTube vlogs since several early, popular vloggers like ‘lonelygirl15’ and ‘littleloca’ have been exposed as actresses playing a role.
8 – James Trier links Malcolm Gladwell’s and Naomi Klein’s concept of “cool hunting” (in which corporations hire youth to search out and deliver cutting-edge lifestyles, fashions, and countercultures so they can be used in marketing) to the act of searching for videos on YouTube (also using the meaning of McLuhan’s concept of “cool” media). I am grateful for his connection of these terms, but cannot agree with his celebratory application of them.
9 – Of course, an activity like mashing is deeply threatening to the culture industry; “the prevailing formula for copyright and trademark enforcement is a turf war over who is going to get to make art with the new technologies. And it seems that if you’re not on the team of a company large enough to control a significant part of the playing field, and can’t afford your very own team of lawyers, you don’t get to play.” (Klein, 1999).
10 – There is some overlap between the activities I subscribe to mashers and jammers. I attempt to differentiate between the two by their intent; I see in jammers a purposeful intent to resist, subvert, or comment on dominant cultural interpellations, rather than mashers’ perhaps sole a sense of playfulness with texts. Obviously, some of this differentiation depends on reader interpretation, as in the YouTube clip “White Chicks and Gang Signs” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKTDRqQtPO8).
11 – For example, the South Asian diaspora blog Sepia Mutiny hosts meet-ups across the country. They also galvanize their readers to political action, aided (it must be said) in some cases by YouTube videos, as with the 2006 George Allen ‘macaca’ re-election campaign scandal.
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. (1993). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. from Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum, published to web by the University of Glasgow, http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/SESLL/EngLit/ugrad/hons/theory/cultindustry.ht….
Berman, Russell, David Pan, and Paul Piccone. “The Society of the Spectacle 20 Years Later: A Discussion.” Telos, no. 86
Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. (1999). Debord, Cybersituations, and the Interactive Spectacle. SubStance 3, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0049-2426%281999%2928%3A3%3C129%3ADCATI….
Debord, Guy. (1994) The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books.
Decherney, Peter. (2007). In Focus: Fair Use and Film. Cinema Journal 46(2):117-20.
Gladwell, Malcom. (1997, March 17). The Cool Hunt. The New Yorker available from, http://www.gladwell.com/1997/1997_03_17_a_cool.htm. Accessed 2 December 2008.
Hilderbrand, Lucas. (2007, Fall). YouTube: Where Cultural Memory and Copyright Converge. Film Quarterly 61(1) Available from http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1371260081&sid=1&Fmt=4&clientId=5604&….
Jones, Morris. (2006). Will News Find a Home on Youtube? Nieman Reports 4. Available from http://0-proquest.umi.com.library.lausys.georgetown.edu:80/pqdweb?did=12… &Fmt=3&clientId=5604&RQT=309&VName=PQD.
Klein, Naomi. (1999). No Logo. New York: Picador.
Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. (2005). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge.
Manovich, Lev. (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,.
“Now Take Your Acid and Let’s Go.” www.overheardinnewyork.com, http://www.overheardinnewyork.com/archives/009908.html.
“Of Course, I Still Don’t Know If He’s Really David Hasselhoff.” www.overheardeverywhere.com, http://www.overheardeverywhere.com/archives/000292.html.
“Sepia Mutiny.” www.sepiamutiny.com
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. (2001). Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Trier, James. (2007). “Cool” Engagements with Youtube: Part 1. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50(5). pp. 408-12.
________. (2007). The Spectacle and Detournement. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 51(3) Available from http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1382111941&sid=1&Fmt=3&clientId=5604&….
Van Sant, Gus. (1995). “To Die For.” 106 min. USA: Columbia Pictures.
White, Rob. (2006/2007). Treasure Tube. Film Quarterly 2 Available from http://0-proquest.umi.com.library.lausys.georgetown.edu:80/pqdweb?did=1195676031&sid=1&Fmt=3&clientId=5604&RQT=309&VName=PQD.
Additional YouTube Links Referenced
http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=greenteagirlie “greenteagirlie” profile
http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=littleloca “littleloca” profile
http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=lonelygirl15 “LonelyGirl15” profile
http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=ysabellabrave “ysabellabrave” profile
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2f4heaG288 “God, Inc. – Episode 1”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r90z0PMnKwI “George Allen introduces ‘macaca’”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5g7zlJx9u2E “UCLA Student Tasered by Police in Library”