In a YouTubers React to Web Culture episode released earlier this month, a host of YouTube vloggers (syndicated web television personalities) share a range of thoughts on the cultural role of the world’s most popular video website:
“Why is so hard for people to understand that YouTube is vast and different types of content exist there?
“[Older generations] don’t understand why it works. And because it is this huge ecosystem, they don’t know where to start.”
“YouTube struggles to shake its reputation for…simpleton content partly because it has not risen to the level of Netflix or Amazon Prime.”
“Why judge? Honestly make any content you want. Do what works. But the ones that are innovative are the ones that are going to last and break through and those people will be remembered forever.
While only a few pieces of the larger Internet puzzle, this clearly displays an awareness of the social implications of the world of online video. And yet a quick look at the “Popular Right Now” section on YouTube scarcely betrays any patterns: an epic movie trailer with tens of millions of views rubs shoulders with a homemade video of an emotional grandfather; a dizzyingly neon K-pop music video shares the spotlight with a smoky makeup tutorial. As one video after another goes viral, it pours into the confusing stew of popular culture. If these were fossils uncovered thousands of years later, they would make a delightfully peculiar portrait of a generation—or, considering the indiscriminate diversity, a lack of character.
In a world saturated with social media and instant video, discernment is relative and discretion is optional. The only clear desires are for fame and more content. Is this a birthplace of an impassioned passivity of sorts—a place for being passionate about our passivity, a bipolar world made of people too entertained to care?
As an activity, viewing is less passive than it seems. Each action is an external manifestation of a choice and therefore helps define and form the person who makes it. In “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Nicholas Carr’s 2008 article for The Atlantic, Carr discusses the work of Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist from the 1960s, who stressed that “media are not just passive channels of information” but “supply the stuff of thought” and “shape the process of thought.” While Carr’s article focuses on online reading rather than viewing experience, his discussion of the dynamics of passive consumption seems to apply to the larger online experience. Every choice prompts a micro-formation, either positive or negative. Yet in an all-encompassing environment where choices are many and guidelines are few, the content which defines online video not only grabs your attention, but can genuinely confuse your identity.
Take, for example, female body image. Current approaches and treatments of the topic vary as much as online content itself. If I want to encounter a natural, unaltered, makeup-free body, Colbie Caillat’s “Try” is a click away. On the other hand, if I want to engage where women showcase their bodies as forms of expression or conformation, manipulation or assertion, numerous videos of Valeria Lukyanova (better known as “the human Barbie”) or fashion show highlights will perfectly suit my taste. With so many options and no definite answers, the viewer—a teenager or an elder, a woman or a man—becomes the singular judge, choosing and consuming based on personal preference or conviction.
Yet herein lies the flaw: although individual choices characterize personality, these arbitrary decisions do not ultimately draw our attention to what truly matters. Taste and truth are not synonyms. Although body image does depend on unique standards, emotions, and experiences, each personal opinion contributes to the collective psyche, fueling further development of popular culture. A thirty-second viral video of a puppy on a treadmill with over five million views receives widespread (however transient) recognition more so than a well-crafted, yet lengthier, online documentary on such serious societal issues as human trafficking or domestic abuse.
Shane Dawson, one of the most successful vloggers on YouTube, comments on the importance of a clip’s length for its viral success, regardless of its content. Rolling his eyes, Dawson muses,
“People have no attention span. So they see a video, and the time is, like, two seconds, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can work that in.’ If they see a video that’s, like, two minutes, they’re like, ‘Ugh, that’s too much work!'”
The relationship between video’s length and popularity, while certainly subjective, nevertheless points to a larger implication. No matter the individual opinion, the view count—the act of watching itself—carves the path for upcoming trends and further development of popular culture. For if one short clip has gone viral, others will try their best to imitate it, regardless of the original content, in order to boost the view count.
If these ten or twenty-second videos on the “Popular Right Now” list consistently capture and hold our attention, how does it affect our ability to recognize what truly matters? If I watch a whole litany of snippet videos with unconnected messages, once I leave the online threshing floor, I cannot help but realize how this cacophony has contributed nothing, neither to me nor to the larger circle of net-denizens. I have done nothing but consume a cacophony.
If collective action helps define our culture, then an individual act of viewing means something, however small. So, before I click on a video’s thumbnail to “see more,” I as a net-denizen need to ask myself two questions. First, does this define who I am or aspire to be? Or, phrased differently, am I going to erase this from my watch history right afterwards? And second, do I realize that, despite no personal contribution, pointing my eyeballs towards this screen actively supports certain entities within our popular culture?
So the next time I look at a screen for whatever reason, I need to remember that the simple act of observing is no longer a passive act. I love YouTube, but I have to keep in mind how, on the Internet, you are what you watch. In the end, viewer discretion is highly advised.