Video/ Re:humanities: The Images Seduce

“However, the story soon turns dark. The images seduce. They are richer and more compelling than the real life around them. [Director Wim] Wenders’s characters fall in love with their dreams, become addicted to them. People wander about with blankets over their heads the better to see the monitors from which they cannot bear to be parted. They are imprisoned by the screens, imprisoned by the keys to their past that the screens seem to hold.”

Reading Digital Culture, p 249

I’ve been thinking about the above excerpt from Sherry Turkle’s “Who Am We?” a fair amount since our last class. We talked at length about the value (or futility) of establishing a YouTube canon and how events like the YouTube Play Biennial are indicative of a larger phenomenon, namely the supplanting of traditional channels of fame by the more populist digital and social channels.

I mentioned that YouTube’s great innovative strength was its staggering capacity for documentation: every minute, 35 hours of new video stream their way onto the site. Quite literally, humanity is crowdsourcing an intangible codex of the human experience; we’re slowly amassing every permutation and combination of recordable events that can occur in a human lifetime. This is essentially the way that many viral hits build allure: they are humorous or engaging moments once entirely transient–like the daily news– but now “preserved” in a digital archive.

Stemming from these thoughts about our pursuit to document everything, my question is essentially whether we have subtly transformed into a society facing the mirror problem of the one in Wenders’s film (synopsis). With the rise of hyper-intuitive portable video, every moment is now worthy of documentation, and that fundamentally changes how we operate in reality. Our experiences start assembling themselves into a spectrum of digital value: the allure of “authoring” the next viral hit goads everyone with a camera lens and a 3G connection to capture more of reality in a pixelated shadowbox. We go forth and document, frenetically ensnaring an expanding list of increasingly trivial moments.

Our addiction, then, is not motivated by the hope that dredging the subconscious self will manifest some hidden or repressed truth about humanity, but instead seems driven by the fear of transience: without a record, how will we recall the fantastic events that pepper our lives? When I die, will my importance to society at large be my upload history? My tweets? Additionally, there may be some innate desire to misrepresent our lives: if someone can score one viral hit, can we be led to think that individual’s existence is filled with moments worthy of capture?

TL;DR: The populism of social media is allowing people to become famous not by traditional means like creating new things or participating in a fictional reality, but instead by capturing increasing amounts of the current reality. This poses some interesting questions about how we interact with the analog world.

Constriction

Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, recently posted an article that briefly touches on the phenomenon of a “manicured life” in the vast, chaotic frontier of social media (he focuses specifically Twitter, though I believe his thesis rings more true for YouTube–more later). Backed by a convincing vignette by an author at Gizmodo and a psychological study conducted at the University of California-Berkeley, Lehrer attests that social media services like Twitter present us with such a glut of information that we tend to fall into a dangerous animal-reaction lockstep: we interact with the service akin to the eighth grader who went to a new high school with one other friend, and latch on to comfort zones. We follow our friends, Shaq, and maybe Isaiah Mustafa for hip points; we utilize or exploit none of the essentially unlimited opportunities to meet new people.

Lehrer’s argument is actually about creativity vs. uninspired redundance, so I lied a little bit. He wants us to follow strangers on Twitter so that we don’t become hipstarr-drones and have access to perspectives on “God, Detroit and the Kardashians” that we would not normally consider.

The UC-Berkeley study is the crux of his argument: a psychologist put a bunch of people in a room and showed them a Powerpoint of solid colors, asking the subjects to identify the color presented. Later, she asked them to do free-association with the color words (e.g. “blue”-”sky,” “green”-”grass”).  The control group presented totally banal responses, akin to the examples I just gave. They relied on the hardwired, comfortable associations that pretty much everyone has. The experiment group, though, was pretty great: she planted a research assistant in the group and told her to intentionally misidentify one of the colors. The experiment group’s association was much more complex; some subjects responded to “blue” with “Miles Davis,” among other nontraditional color associations.

Lehrer interprets these findings as evidence that injecting the unknown and strange into a gray life forces us to tap into the storied human ability to adapt; this adaptation makes stretches our imaginative capabilities and makes the neuron network in our brains look like steel wool on fire. It seems like a miniscule leap of faith to apply these ideas to social media and fame; a service like YouTube allows us to envision fame in unconventional channels, changing the very definition of the word and allowing us nearly unfettered creativity.

YouTube allows users to redefine fame by sheer alteration or interjection: Bear Vasquez attained his shining viral moment by playing the role of breathless documentarian; in reality, he was simply staring at rainbows in his backyard. The child in David After Dentist (and his father) achieved fame simply through a humorous display of the effects of anesthetics. While some chase fame through traditional channels using Youtube– examples of acoustic crooners and sports phenom-prodigies abound– others sit dutifully in the digital room with no walls, looking at a Powerpoint of blues and seeing radiant shades of gold.

Brand-Identity

I mentioned this term  that I made up a lot in my last post, but the way I think of brand-identity is this: celebrities have an identity that is presented to the public every time they step in front of a camera, cross into a space of performance (court, stage, etc.), or talk abstractly about anything. The moment they engage fans directly, however, is the moment they enter a space of branding: generating impressions with audiences, galvanizing those audiences to make an opinion about the product that is a specific celebrity’s appearance, talent, and lifestyle. I guess the identity is what the artist cultivates, but brand is a fan-dictated perception of the artist’s identity.

I think Vanilla Ice is a pretty good example: his nu-metal shlock-reinvention in the early 2000s was an attempt to reidentify himself. However, his actions came off as clownish histrionics and he was branded as an irrelevant ICP reject.

Relics

My internship with a digital media agency this summer has given me a substantial amount of time to:

  • master PowerPoint
  • eat at cool places in Philly
  • spend a lot of time on Twitter.

I find myself thinking that Twitter is basically the Leatherman of social media tools; it is simultaneously status and location monitor, networking service, brand builder, commerce enhancer, news tracker, and red phone to any number of celebrities with time or ghost social media monitors enough to respond to 140-character praise or criticism. The last point is what intrigues me most:  initiating a dialogue with anyone who inhabited the spaces and structures of fame was previously dependent on winning some sort of TRL sweepstakes and having questions vetted through a vast array of lawyers and agents, but now anyone in the great wired mass can join the cacophony of tweets permeating the web in hopes of reaching an idol.

Again, I’m now struggling with a criticism levied on Twitter (and perhaps social media in general) by Prof. Stadler: Twitter does not achieve anything genuinely innovative, it simply gives a (somewhat atonal) digital voice to pre-existing phenomena. Indeed, Americans could always write their beloved stars letters or emails and wait patiently for a response. For most fans, it may have been enough to imagine Michael Jordan or Madonna sitting down in some sunlit room with a giant bag of fan mail and having a brief chuckle or heartfelt moment over their letters. They would probably never see a response, and the celebrities would never see the fans.

With every new social media tool available, famous people are presented with another facet of their brand-identity to cultivate and maintain. Since Twitter is part of the royal triumverate of social media (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube), it makes sense that celebrities and inhabitants of fame carefully monitor their image and sustain their presence on the service. It is common to see pursuers of hyperstardom such as Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and others respond to or retweet fan messages for entire fan bases to see. I think this is where Twitter and digital/social media change the game.

With means of communication as intimate as letters or emails, there are a limited number of people or identities involved in the exchange. If I write a letter to Bruce Springsteen saying his music is Americana par excellence that inspires more emotion in me than most real-life events and the Boss doesn’t respond, then perhaps I chalk it up to his husy lifestyle, I listen to Darkness, and I go on with my life– my perception of the Springsteen brand unchanged. Even if fan communication ends negatively, the entire exchange is shrouded in intimacy– at most, the fan and his/her family/friends are affected. Twitter tears the proverbial veil and places an interesting onus of participation on celebrities.

In order for celebrities to see a fan’s tweets, that fan must makes their tweets public, or available to all of the Internet. A misstep or protracted delay in response may be all that it takes for a fan to take up his/her digital bullhorn and start shit-talking a celebrity for being self-centered or selloutish. While most tweets badmouthing celebrities go unnoticed and remain in a circle of followers similar to family/friends, some could get picked up by more prominent fans/social influencers or celebrity news trackers and snowball into monolithic defamation campaigns– note that fans who do have their tweets responded to have significant spikes in followers and account traffic.

Now celebrities also face a dangerous roulette: it’s impossible to respond to every fan due to the sheer volume of the audience on Twitter, but any tweet left ignored could ignite a firestorm of criticism. Also consider that public tweets are constantly siphoned into social monitoring engines for a process called sentiment analysis: an algorithm examines tweets and other social media input for certain key words or phrases and assigns the posts a “sentiment,” usually either positive or negative.  Celebrities and their camps risk brand-identiy damage by being too quiet in the house of fame.

I don’t know that I achieved what I wanted to say here. Essentially, fans face a lottery that their tweet will be recognized and their idol justified as famous in their minds; celebrities face a similar, more dire lottery that a disgruntled, ignored fan will launch a free public campaign of criticism against them. Fans that have their messages retweeted are crowded as some chosen disciple; celebrities that respond to no one are derided as ungrateful or unapproachable.

Is this phenomenon new? Has Twitter actually effected change in the way celebrities interact with fans, or is it another opportunity to calculate interaction with a fan base? In other words, do celebrities now have another performance to carry out in the careful selection of fan communication for response? What do you think of the concept of brand-identity?

Documentation

This past Friday I took off work to do things around my apartment– clean (didn’t get done), buy groceries (didn’t get done), and interact with the fantastic humans I call my friends (done in abundance).  In my downtime, though, I spent a significant amount of time just waltzing around the Internet; I trekked through YouTube, a few blogs, and a number of trending topics on Twitter, just to get the lay of the digital land. I’ve talked about web applications like YouTube and Twitter in abstract before, but I suppose this time I wanted to have proprietary, tangible thoughts and ideas versus the usual “You’ll get used to it.”

I found a series of videos entitled “Is It A Good Idea to Microwave This?” I’m actually watching them for source material as I write this. I stumbled upon these as I looked at videos of disasters (Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse, etc.). Essentially, this enterprising teenager Jory Caron constructed a “safety is our number one priority” blast room in his garage and microwaves things in it; the “ventilation” consists of two ineffective-looking fans and a thorough wallpapering of this blast room with tinfoil. Each video sees a different consumer good meet its radioactive fate: a lighter, a glowstick, an xBox 360, etc.

My initial thought was how this dude hadn’t been crushed under the weight of the existential underpinnings of this series: of course it’s a bad idea to microwave all these things. Microwaving hot dogs can give you indigestion, so microwaving electronics and devices designed to set fires is entirely unnecessary. There is no essence to define here; this is digitally televised pyromania. Caron’s narration of things burning is totally superfluous and the host sports a slightly disheveled appearance; he is a mad scientist of the first degree, even to the point of admitting his methods are not rigidly scientific.

Upon further review, though, Caron may be serving a greater community than just himself and his friends. Warning labels and folklore-bred admonitions are everywhere in modern society. Caron is simply documenting the reasoning behind these labels and tales: he is digitizing the dangerous elements of an appliance-riddled human experience. Since the underlying  idea of the Internet is information exchange, he is merely contributing to the general fund of knowledge by posting videos of things being incinerated by Sharp microwaves. In doing so, he makes himself a tongue-in-cheek digital warning label– there is no “don’t try this at home” because the time-honored saying is implied in his ridiculous behavior.

The question that haunts my internal discussion is a tired one I imagine local news anchors everywhere must ask frequently of the growing tide of stupid human tricks : will viewers emulate Caron’s behavior and generate a record number of appliance-related deaths or see the glints of sarcasm in Caron’s performance and realize microwaves aren’t to be trifled with? The question distilled becomes something I want people to think about and respond to:

After viewing/digesting a digital documentation of a real life event, is your curiosity about the event sated, or do you instinctively wish to replicate the event? Can a digital experience be the same as or better than a real experience?

Alternatively, what qualifies as a worthwhile contribution to the stores of information saturating the Internet?