In terms of aesthetics, reception and general ethnography, YouTube is extremely fertile ground for academic examination. Unlike the critical analysis of a film or the relationship between sound and vision, a critical analysis of the practices of YouTube require a far more tactile method of analysis; it is at the very least a massive variation on the typical visual media format and at most a new art form entirely. So much inhabits this vast and gluttonous mass of cyberspace that tying down any particular “genre” or movement in the medium could seem to be a tricky task reserved for the aesthetics PhD student. However, a recent new YouTube based documentary about a very particular practice on the website has highlighted some key movements and points of discourse on this, still fledgling format.
Becoming YouTube is a web based series still barely half way through its supposed twelve episode quota in looking at the aspects of video blogging, social groups, sub-cultures and their own practices within the online community. It’s an aestheticist’s dream; to have someone sift through and research in detail this area while cutting out so much of the dead weight to hit the key points. However, in its role as entertainment as well as documentary, it has raised some very interesting (occasionally uncomfortable) questions about the role of video blogging. The reaction to it has been positive and yet, in its conglomeration of YouTube “celebrities” and satire on the current trends, it has also touched upon some of the disconcerting elements of the form.
The documentary by DWM scribe and journalist Benjamin Cook has an edge that clearly cuts through the lethargy that the form has sat in for some time. It is sharply edited, witty and unapologetic about its role; a mirror on the YouTube fraternity that highlights its best as well as its worse aspects. However, this piece isn’t merely here to relay a step by step guide to the series so far. Though it has raised some questions about video blogging as a medium, even an art form, these are questions that have been gently nagging for some time. Is it an art form? Is it simply a cathartic exercise for those sinking in the powerful quicksand of solitude? Or is it even a cry for attention from the trees only heard to fall if someone is there? As YouTube is so handily expansive, I believe it can be all of these things.
The mere act of defining something as art has become beyond problematic in the last century. With the over-indulgence of the 90’s Britpack highlighting the very obvious provocation of the question (recently, if ironically brought to a conclusion in last year’s poorly received Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern), it seems fruitless to argue whether something is not an art. Video blogging highlights many aspects of the great works of art, in spite of its often shambolic aesthetic qualities. It is a natural, highly personal medium; a reality shot through the prism of the creator’s reception, history and beliefs. Even when the form descends into the most banal of exercises such as challenges and tags, these can still be seen through that web of interpersonal connectivity (at least for the better and more honest of online creators).
Even if simply relating the events surrounding everyday life and issues, the form can act as a short essay film (though rarely as academic as the likes of Orson Welles or Chris Marker), a creative seminar, awareness raising or even simply pure entertainment. This is the very crux of any of art form; it can create for itself sections and delineations that can be thought of as “genre”. It is however, more powerful than that. The “genre” is so loose, it can often be defined by a single creator. This happens rarely in any other art form. There is an argument for Beethoven having his own genre in the classical delineation of classic music history, or Picasso in the history of art but, for a medium so still so young in its infancy, this shows it is evolving at a startling rate.
This where Becoming YouTube begins to fit in. Gone are the shaky aesthetics of a webcam or phone camera and instead we are presented with form that is not only sharper and longer than most previous works, but is itself examining the work while simultaneously changing it. This perhaps explains why there has been some debate over its thematic merits and messages, though this seems to be an over-reaction and misunderstanding of its satirical documentation.
This element of satire seems to have been greatly needed. The form itself, being so free both technically and creatively[i] is easily open to a more cynical and vain usage. One aspect highlighted in a recent episode is especially true; the phenomena of young males taking up the form specifically to create an image to appeal to girls. A young man will claim to like Harry Potter and Doctor Who[ii], creating a very specific image for themselves in a video equivalent a dating website portfolio. This diluting of the medium for personal gain is one of the main satires found in Becoming YouTube and it is all the better for acknowledging and highlighting it, especially as its own viewership grows ironically fast and high. Yet this aspect is one of the few elements to receive vocal online criticism.
In video blogger Mickeleh’s video response to some of the series’ apparent misdirection, he argues that Becoming YouTube is simply misdirecting new creators into making the form using the old methods while expecting to gain the success of the bigger creators. This argument has several flaws though is extremely well made by the Vlogger who is one of the most articulate on the scene. The main flaw in this argument is also highlighting the most problematic element about the form as it stands today. If people are wanting to create something, simply for the perks and the gain presented in Benjamin Cook’s videos (which show the typical celebrity-like relationship the bigger Vloggers have with their fandom) then the form is not going to survive. Like a singer who wants to be famous as to be photographed for the clothes they wear rather than the increased audience of their music, there are many video bloggers clearly and obviously creating for the specific ideals of becoming “Crazy Internet Famous”.
This is why the medium is so interesting. It took music to discover itself as popular mass culture medium in the 1950s before it could venture down this route. For film it took roughly thirty years before this trend began in the west [iii] . For YouTube, it has taken mere years, perhaps even a few months before the potential was seen, merchandise was created and the bloggers themselves became a product in their own right. The latter ideal is one of the reasons why video blogging has produced the sort of ravenous fan base that takes Television programs and musicians years to garner. The idea of the creator as product is a dangerous one but also a powerful one that allows the viewers to feel affinity with them on a personal level rarely paralleled in any other art form.
The closest that other mediums have come to this have been in the most extreme and avant-garde of art forms. With the likes of Gilbert and George considering themselves as living sculptures, there is very little difference between them and the popular video blogger apart from audience and fan base. They themselves become the art and therefore the product in the same way that Alex Day is still the overall product of his channel in spite of his production of music. This is another reason why Becoming YouTube is not only useful but also refreshing. By taking the medium in the third person and looking at it from a bird’s eye perspective, Cook may have started a quiet revolution but has also reflected the medium back on itself; the effects of which can only be a good thing for the future quality of the form as it contests and addresses its issues such as the treatment of female video bloggers [iv], the increasingly aggressive nature of its sub-cultures to outsiders and its perpetual quest to create the dogmatic hierarchy of popularity over talent.
[i] The two criteria to actually be able to physically to do it are the ownership of a camera and to physically exist. It appears to be a myth that you need decent equipment to become a successful video blogger. Ironically it is a factor that affects filmmakers more than bloggers.
[ii] The latter is interesting in itself, especially with the affirmation in Becoming YouTube by one video blogger stating that “liking Doctor Who is not nerdy”; a statement only conceivable by someone who was not a fan while the show was off air before 2005. The relationship between Doctor Who and online communities in general is often one of extreme polar opposites. In this case, the YouTube fraternity often embrace 2005 – present day Doctor Who while a more Doctor Who orientated online community such as Gallifery Base can produce members of the complete opposite tastes.
[iii] This is sadly very obvious in today’s cash cow Hollywood cinema which thrives on the casting of celebrities over the correct performer the role in the narrative.
[iv] A topic that is increasingly important, especially with the systematic abuse that female video bloggers tend to be on the receiving end of. Hopefully it will be an issue covered in a future episode.