Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Broadcast Yourself

This is the final paper I wrote for Languages of the Media. It was a great class, and I'm going to miss having it. My thesis is that YouTube, like other modern phenomena, is following a trend of egocentricity that I've noticed popping up all over the place these days. Oh, and if the footnotes at the bottom end up looking messy that's Blogger's silly fault, not mine. Anyhoo, enjoy...

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For many decades, the dominant mode of communication for human beings has been Television. When people want to know what is happening in their community or globally, when they want to know what kind of weather to expect, when they want to know what music is currently popular or when they simply want to be entertained, people have turned to Television. Since the advent of the World Wide Web, however, things have been changing rapidly. One of the most recent Internet success stories is YouTube, the website that allows anyone to upload video content to the web for anyone to access. This service is proving to be an incredibly revolutionary form of entertainment. YouTube, now owned by Google, is currently worth about 1.65 billion dollars and receives around 65 000 uploads a day.[1] There is no denying that it is quickly becoming a dominant entertainment medium, but what does that mean? What are the implications? That is what I shall explore in this paper, and perhaps, in the end, be able to identify a direction in which our own culture is carrying us.

Not long ago, a very popular video blog known as Lonelygirl15 was found out to be fictional to the surprise of millions of viewers. Lonelygirl15 is a series propagated on YouTube that depicts a teenaged girl named Bree in her bedroom, talking about her life on her webcam. Bree, (whose screenname is “lonelygirl15”), is played by an actress from New Zealand named Jessica Rose. The series got started out of the Beverly Hills bedroom of Mesh Flinders, with the help of his friend Miles Beckett. What is so different about this show is that, up until recently, the viewers did not know they were being duped. They believed Bree was a real person, and corresponded with her by email. (Another woman was hired to play Bree off camera and reply to all the email she was sent.)[2] Sometimes the viewers’ comments and such were even featured in the show, and in this way, the audience heavily influenced the direction the show took. (Interestingly, once the viewers found out that Bree wasn’t real, many of them were still content to correspond with the fictional character.) Rose plays Bree very well, and except for a few minor faults the whole setup has quite high verisimilitude. Lonelygirl15 is a prime example of the transformation our modern entertainment, and ultimately, our whole culture is starting to undergo. Not only does it blur the line dividing reality and fiction, it is also largely interactive. The Lonelygirl15 video blogs have garnered over 24 million views.

Looking at the staggering success of YouTube and its content such as Lonelygirl15, some theories start to take shape. Why are these entertainment media so successful? When asked to comment on the success of YouTube, its cofounder Chad Hurley has said many times that, “Everyone, in the back of his mind, wants to be a star.” This conviction aligns itself well with the website’s slogan: “Broadcast yourself.” It seems fair to say that there is a great a deal of emphasis these days on ego. Just look at the title of YouTube. Half of Apple’s products, from gadgets to software, all begin with the letter i. The very nature of Lonelygirl15 is that it is essentially a public, digital diary that you can be a part of! Broadcast yourself. In other writings I have discussed the way the movie The Last Kiss tries to establish a strong connection with the audience by making them feel included in the events, and also that modern music is far more self-centered than music used to be. In his book, How to Read a Film, James Monaco describes the way media tends to construct a convenient reality for us to subscribe to. What he says of this is, “And one implication, at least, is beginning to become clear: we are losing our grounding in reality. We are well on our way to David Bowman’s fearful cage.”[3] The “cage” Monaco refers to here is the supposed Virtual Reality we construct for ourselves, a beautiful cage because it looks so open and free but really it is a false reality. (Think: The Matrix.) YouTube isn’t the only one jumping on the egocentricity bandwagon. Another cultural phenomenon in its own right is the emerging video game genre known as the MMORPG, which stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. An MMORPG has users create a highly customized character that represents themselves in the digital game world, in which they go on adventures and do battle with hundreds of other player-controlled characters inhabiting the same world. (The leading MMORPG on the market, World of Warcraft, has a subscriber base of over 7.5 million people worldwide.)[4] The MMORPG, which began as an obscure subculture, is slowly but surely finding its way into a mainstream status. And, lo and behold, it possesses the same characteristics as all the rest: the point of the games is to improve one’s own “self”, (ie. their character), plus it takes place in a virtual reality, and it is very interactive.

By now it is clear that YouTube follows the conventions of exceptionally modern multimedia, that seem to focus on catering to people on a very individual, personal level. Like “David Bowman’s fearful cage”, YouTube and its contemporaries are user-defined media that can be as truthful or conversely fantastic as the users want them to be. Whether or not these are positive changes remains to be seen, for all of this is so new that its long-term effects are nearly impossible to fathom. Perhaps the answers will be clear around the time companies find an effective way to use YouTube as an advertising medium, but until them, we will just have to wait.



[1] Garfield, Bob. "YouTube Vs. Boob Tube." Wired Dec. 2006: 222+

[2] Davis, Joshua. "The Secret World of Lonelygirl." Wired Dec. 2006: 232-239.

[3] Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 560.

4 Garside, Ryan. "Burning Crusade Dated." Bit-Tech.Net. 10 Nov. 2006. 21 Nov. 2006 .

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