Reflection 3: Caught in the Youtube Vortex
Manovich’s article, The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life, raises questions about the supposedly revolutionary nature of social media. While he acknowledges the transition from one-to-many to many-to-many broadcasting, he points out that the statistics show that the “many” producers may not be as many as popular commentators and academics assume. Manovich observes that even within the realm of democratized social media, it remains that large number of users access the content of a small number of producers. I feel this is especially evident among Youtubers, where a small number of producers gather subscribers, gaining celebrity status and reaping the profits. These Youtubers act similar to traditional media celebrities by holding meet and greets, signing autographs, and attracting huge crowds to their live appearances. As such, I agree that Youtube in particular is less about social activism and more about entertainment, as Manovich implies.
A cursory look at any high-profile Youtuber immediately enforces Manovich’s idea that social media producers follow the templates laid out by traditional media. I would like to further explore this idea as I believe the success of many high-profile Youtubers is based on their ability to mimic broadcast television. First, many Youtubers copy the structure of traditional television broadcasts. They produce and post content at regular intervals, typically once a week. Some Youtubers may also have multiple channels to appeal to a wider audience and provide more content. This echoes the popular trend for television channels to have offshoots, just like Much Music’s “Much More Music” channel. In addition, the format of the videos themselves often follows the format of regular television shows. Regularly produced Youtube shows often include an introduction clip which plays at the beginning of every video, and credits at the end. In addition, popular Youtubers frequently engage in strong branding efforts. In their videos, they develop catch-phrases and plug their upcoming content, and may even include trailers for their larger productions. Furthermore, Youtubers may customize the interface of their channel with personally branded imagery, and create t-shirts and other merchandise bearing their images and catch-phrases. Finally, Youtubers answer questions and fan mail. Clearly, many successful Youtubers have borrowed the strategies of traditional broadcasts to grow their fanbase and achieve notoriety.
I would like to look at (in)famous Youtuber Peter Chau, known for his crass and candid comedy style, and examine how he uses strategies from traditional media to attract and trap viewers. His “weekly news round up” is very similar to comedy news shows, like the Daily Show or the Rick Mercer Report, where a single comedian pokes fun at events in the news. Like traditional news parodies, he relies on professional and traditional sources to provide content for his weekly program. He replicates the quality of professionally produced media by using HD cameras and editing software. He also uses strategies to build his brand by designing and giving away t-shirts, using theme music, answering fan and hate mail, and ending all his videos with his distinctive catchphrase: “stop drinking the haterade and start drinking the bubble tea.” Peter Chau has successfully employed traditional strategies to gain huge success online.
As Manovich pointed out, the social media revolution provides a new medium for budding entertainers whose popularity outstrips that of online activists. Youtube is frequently seen as a force of societal change and as a medium for social activism and free speech, where any individual can create a broadcast. However, as the author shows, Youtube, although it has revolutionary potential is rather just an evolution of entertainment media. Clearly, Youtube mimics the successful patterns of mainstream broadcast media, complete with the annoying commercials and product placement.
Manovich, N. (2008). The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life. In Lovink, G., & Niederer, S. (Eds.), Video Vortex Reader: Responses to Youtube (33-44). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.