Daniel R. Smith
Video-bloggers document their life through videos uploaded onto YouTube. Or are they living their life on videos watched by others?
As much as these video bloggers are diarising their life through video, the video diary also exists in relation to all other videos on the website, namely other video-bloggers who they are in dialogue with (and friends with). These videos are a diary of their life, seen individually through their own video, but also constitute a fame economy: these diaries are seen by a multitude of people. A life in videos also becomes a celebrity life. Reference is often directed toward this by the video-blogger themselves. Yet this is not merely a “thank you, fans, for coming out to see me” type of celebrity reaction of gratitude, neither is it a mere facet of YouTube video-blogging as a medium of address.
What is one to make of this awareness of diarising life in relation to a viewed multitude? A fame economy and a life in video-letters? These video-bloggers are people as much as they are a celebrity persona. For as much as they are aware of their own celebrity, and their ability to cultivate it and utilise it, they constantly make reference to it – dwelling upon it and often pointing out its irony; demystifying it to a large degree to those who may be unaware of the irony. As one videoblogger, Christopher ‘Bing’ Bingham put it:
I’m not a fictional character that you cheer for in a soap opera, and I’m not an already establish celebrity being marketed to you. I’m an accessible person that these viewers want to see succeed. What’s more is that every viewer on YouTube knows, even if it’s just a little bit in the back of their mind, that they are a valuable part of that. (BingRadio, ‘Critical thinking in the morning: uploaded – 03.10.2012).
Bing states he is not a fictional character – either a television character in a fictional show, nor a marketed celebrity (e.g. pop star or film actor) – and goes onto make the argument that something of the culture of YouTube explains this:
I think that the two areas where this example is very good for are the accessibility… and mediated persona of a person online and traditional media and the difference in value or perceived value of the viewer in this format. When you’re watching television you don’t feel valuable and you can’t make your opinions known (BingRadio, ‘Critical thinking in the morning: uploaded – 03.10.2012).
YouTube culture is dialogical – all videos are in dialogue with all others; and all persons are given the capacity to speak, author themselves, in this vlog-o-sphere and establish a relation to others. And yet, what is odd is that fictionality still prevails. Vlogs are not simply diaries of information; they are stories – either internally as one video has a narrative aspect of what the video is ‘about’ and how this is conveyed by the vlogger as well as relationally: each video is epistolary, it is a story told through a series of videos.
One way of making sense of why YouTube has developed this strange tightrope of celebrity persona and real life person – fictional person, non-fictional person – in vlogging culture is to note two cultural products the vlogging community often make reference to. One is the American NBC sit-com Community and the other is novelist David Foster Wallace. A quick glance at these two illuminates aspects of YouTube that may shed light on this ambiguous celebrity-real life person the vlogger cultivates.
NBC’s Community (2009) is a meta-sit com. As Douglas Rushkoff (2013) recently observed, the show is a plotted sit-com “except for the fact that the characters continually refer to the fact that they are on a television sitcom. …Community’s stories are themselves pop culture references. Narrative becomes a self-conscious wink.” (Rushkoff, 2013:28) Narrative today, according to Rushkoff, is not a linear story it is rather a means to give “viewers the tools to make connections between various forms of media.” (ibid) YouTube, as stated, is precisely a dialogical medium: vlogs only ‘make sense’ in relation to others; and the stories that are told are not self-consciously told but rather built around cobbling together and connecting other videos and citations to other media. Indeed, vloggers often go to the trouble to make conscious reference to the genre of storytelling they are currently engaged in; they interrupt monologue to refer to the fact that their speech is either comic, tragic, melodramatic or whathaveyou. One may suggest then that Community’s narrative winks perfectly fit the medium of vlogging: one is aware they are making a diary for others to view (unlike like a written journal which is hidden away from others as it is written ‘to oneself’).
With regards to the second cultural influence on YouTube vloggers, David Foster Wallace, this influence is less explicit. While, like Community, he is often cited – by fellow novelist John Green – Wallace is not an influence shared by all (or, indeed, many). Yet Wallace’s essay ‘E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction’, originally published in 1992, contains elements of argument that apply to YouTube, if only indirectly (unlike Community which is often parodied). Wallace’s essay is concerned with our theme of celebrity fiction and real life diary. For Wallace this is the difference between fiction writers and television scenario. The fiction writer is a voyeur as the observe life for their craft; the television scenario is staged real-life, a life that is ostensibly true to life but an imitation of it and, as such, perverse (in Wallace’s view) because of this. And yet there is a paradox for Wallace. The fiction writer, the voyeur of life but not participator, – due to their position best placed to observe, record and covet scenarios for fictional versions in stories, – should adore television: it is voyeurism for the natural voyeur, the fiction writer. And yet this is an illusion: viewing a life of television characters, the cast of Friends and their going through their 20-30s in New York, is not voyeurism but spectacle. To use Friends as a source of fiction is an illusion because this is not life but spectacle that requires viewers: to be spied on by television screens requires the non-mundane; the staged and the honed ability to ‘come across’ natural while engaging in captivating japes. The parallel to YouTube is that one is watching these vloggers like a television – i.e. ‘on (a) screen (of some sort, PC. Mac. Laptop. iPhone etc.)’ – and that the vloggers know, explicitly like television actors, they are being watched. Indeed, watching is the mandate of film – the camera records only for the future watcher (otherwise it is socially redundant. It is record. Authority: ‘this happened; I have it on camera’).
And YouTube suffers the same problem that Wallace points out for television: what is viewed is not reality, it is a species of fiction – self-conscious fiction. Metafiction. It relies on irony, deception. As one sketch in the documentary Becoming YouTube sums up:
“Don’t take everything at face-value” says Ben to Chris Bingham in a mock-interview. “Some of its scripted. It is but a fiction!”
“Not this bit, obviously.” retorts Bingham (wink. wink.)
“Not this bit. It wouldn’t work if it were scripted.”
“No it wouldn’t work.” mumbles Bingham as Ben makes awkward glances to the camera. (Becoming YouTube: Musicians on YouTube – uploaded 03:05:2013).
But is this irony on YouTube as Wallace sees it in television? No. For Wallace:
“…make no mistake: irony tyrannises us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker-face. … ‘I don’t really mean what I say’. So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How very banal to ask what I mean.’ …And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalised irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.” (Wallace, 1992:183-184)
Not so with YouTube. And the reason why is that Youtube allows inter-action, dialogue – the very aspect that Chris Bingham pointed out above. As Ben Cook’s much quoted phrase from Becoming YouTube states: ‘If TV is a monologue, the YouTube is a conversation’. Dialogue. Irony with dialogue is not tyranny; it is mutual understanding of the self-consciousness of one’s enterprise because through by drawing upon the language and citations of the narrative culture of television through the medium of a video-blog – a self-conscious diary – one realises that they are doing two things at once: authoring themselves, and utilising resources from generic of televisual culture. Irony – as found in the example of Cook and Bingham engaging in meta-commentary on the nature of scripted reality – is a positive value for this generation and allows for something Wallace’s generation was lacking.
The YouTube vloggers were born between c.1985-1995. Postmodern irony; pastiche; ‘death of the subject’ etc. has been their reality – they stand not at a cultural shift (as with Generation X, of which Wallace was a part) but well in the midst of a ‘post-narrative’ culture, both politically and culturally. Why this culture of half diarist of self and half celebrity is not a problem is crucially because YouTube allows one the technical means of authorship that generation X were denied. Take Wallace: at the core of his fiction is an obsession with the ‘self’, the modern individual – the autonomous, singular, centre of experience self – and the problem of trying, through fiction, to realise that this is an illusion. And illusion that we are singular persons manifest by the television: “We are the audience, megametrically many, though most often we watch alone. E unibus pluram.” (Wallace, 1992:153); “solipsism binds us all together.” (Wallace, 1989:309).
What YouTube offers is a way out of this solipsism delusion, to use Wallace’s phrase (ibid.): YouTube allows us to create our own fictions of ourselves in video blogs and realise a distance, awareness and less binding tyrannical service to these versions we play of ourselves.
It may be possible to speculate further on this by suggesting that YouTube, as a video sharing site where people upload monologues of themselves to be exchanged and shared in dialogue with others, it realises a peculiarly development in the anthropological domain of storytelling – it is the production of the meta-narrative subject: A person aware of their own existential singularity but able to mimic generic conventions of others to develop a celebrity persona to demonstrates one is a hero of their own life, and yet, remain aware of their own autonomy as an author by way of referencing its own fictonality (which is, all in all, a good thing politically). Instead of irony being a tyranny of deception it is a mask of suspended responsibility to commit to roles that are, potentially, distressing. How could one live always as a clown in sit-com? How could we all be tragic figures? The point is to mimic these conventions in video-blogging to demonstrate the pathos of the role but remain aware of the fictionality so as to preserve a sense of an automous, authoring subject behind the hero of the celebrity person. “It is but a fiction.”
Rushkoff, Douglas (2013), Present Shock: when everything happens now, (New York: Current)
Wallace, David Foster (1992) ‘E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction’, Review of
Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993:Summer) p.151-194.
Wallace, David Foster (1989) ‘Westward the course of Empire takes it way’ in Girl With Curious Hair, (London: Abacus)