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.

Discussion Points: 11-10-10

1. Boorstin says that we, “live in a world where fantasy is more real than reality,” (37), that we create simulations of experiences because we can’t experience them ourselves, then we have the audacity to believe that our simulations are superior to the actual experiences. How would Boorstin approach the advent of the internet? Can the internet, in some way, serve as a tool to “disillusion ourselves,” (6) by gaining access to the knowledge that original experiences are superior to the simulations of them that we create?

2. Is there a way to reconcile the difference between “man-made and God-made events,” (11) or, “celebrities” and “heroes” (61)? In other words, can we remove the artificial fervor that people add to events and people (which make them pseudo-events or celebrities) and understand them on the basis of their actual weight? For instance, can we construct a scale that accurately places Alexander the Great, John Milton, Lady Gaga, and LonelyGirl15 in order of their actual impact on the world? Or has the internet (and other media) already broken the scale, such that “actual impact” has become a completely relative term?

3. Setting aside the distinction between authenticity and fabrication, Boorstin claims that, “the celebrity is created by the media,” (61). Yet, on Youtube, millions of people have viewed web-cam videos made by some guy/girl in his/her room, and on Twitter, we can see topics that are trending based on what users think is newsworthy. To what extent have new media taken the mechanisms of “old” media (journalists, news-anchors, advertisers, writers, producers, etc.) out of this equation for making a celebrity? To what extent are these mechanisms still present/necessary to elevate news and people to fame?

4. Laurel talks about how–through computers–we can interact within, “worlds in which we can extent, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act,” (113). In what ways has the internet become an extension of our imagination as, “laboratory of the spirit,” (112)?

5. How can we reconcile Laurel’s world-view with Boorstin’s?

The Power of the Audience

“Modern fame is always compounded of the audience’s aspirations and its despair, its need to admire and to find a scapegoat for that need.  To dismiss the circus of contemporary notoriety with pat versions of Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, ‘a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous,’ too easily allows us to ignore the importance of even celebrity in shaping the values of our society, not always for the worse.”

-Leo Braudy

For our second meeting, we attempted to explore the history of modern fame.  What characteristics caused one to be famous?  Is fame more dependent on the famous or her audience?  Who was the first celebrity?  We focused our discussion around excerpts of Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown and Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd.

LinKai lead off with an excellent prompt:

What is fame? “A Word”. This answer suggests the superficiality of fame. To be famous is not to announce the essential character of a person, a moral principle or the innate value of anything. To be famous is to capture the fascination of the public: their hunger for a medium to live their unfilled dreams and a dramatized figure to be seen falling, eventually. Being famous comes with the expense of being objectified as workplace gossips, and being alienated as images. The wholeness of the person is fragmented and later reconstituted, although artificially, by and through the audiences and the media.

From this, Andrew pondered whether there is such a thing as “organic” fame, or if the desire to become famous exists only as supported by external cultural, historical, or societal pressures.  Can one become famous accidentally?  Katie noted that fame is a possible side effect caused by particular professions or life decisions.  Ideally, a senator entered politics because of a genuine interest in law and government, not in order to win the popularity of her district.  This is merely the after effect of her passion for politics, but it does exist nonetheless.

Jacob, though, was more intrigued by the latter half of a celebrity’s “arc” of fame: is it possible to cleanly exit the public eye?  We parsed through recent celebrity scandals and various celebrity vanishing acts, searching for an example in which a celebrity was banished by the public, but we discovered that these motions to destroy fame only increase it: a scandal gives the public something to discuss, and a hiatus only increases the anticipation for a return (ala Dan).  The arc of fame, thus, is not determined by the celebrity or the famous, but rather her audience.  Jacob described this phenomenon as an equalizing effect: the public is happy to see those who may have been unfortunate (Joe the Plummer) gain from fame, but we’re equally eager to tear down those who might be too fortunate (Paris Hilton).

After thoroughly discussing the effect of the audience on the famous, we dove into the celebrity’s effect on the consumer.  As Andrew noted, celebrities are used in marketing campaigns to draw two seemingly disparate things together.  Buick, for instance, uses Tiger Woods as its spokesperson to draw those who respect or like or at least know of Woods to their line of SUV cars.  Further, the campaign is an attempt at rebranding: just as Tiger revolutionized the sport of golf with his youthful exuberance, he repeats this message in car commercials: this isn’t the Buick your grandpa owns.

Our discussion left us with almost as many questions as we started with.  By developing an elaborate model to describe the ways in which celebrities and audiences interact, we complicated our original interpretation of the fame dynamic.  How will our understanding of this relationship affect the way we act toward celebrities in the future?  Will we become self-conscious of our immediate judgments?  Will we judge celebrities even more, under the impression that we as individuals have some form of power over their arc of fame?  Hopefully this will be something we can discuss in the future.

Screen Tests

“Beauties in photographs are different from beauties in person.  It must be hard to be a model, because you’d want to be like a photograph of you, and you can’t ever look that way.  And so you start to copy the photograph.  Photographs usually bring in another half-dimension.  (Movies bring in another whole dimension.  That screen magnetism is something secret—if you could only figure out what it is and how to make it, you’d have a really good product to sell.  But you can’t even tell if someone has it until you actually see them up there on the screen.  You have to give screen tests to find out.)  (63)

Certain people have TV magic: they fall completely apart off-camera but they are completely together on-camera.  They shake and sweat before they go on, they shake and sweat during commercials, they shake and sweat when it’s all over; but while the camera is filming them, they’re poised and confident-looking.  The camera turns them on and off.”  (80)

-Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

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First Meeting – Reflections!

I was given the task of reflecting on our first meeting of #digitalfame. (The hashtag is part of the name now, right? Right.) If my thoughts are a little fractured, please see it as an intentional (and brilliant) mimicry of the often-fractured nature of information on the internet and not as a reflection of any lack of cohesiveness in my brain. ;)

We entered the course via Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and David Shields’ Reality Hunger. I’ll focus on the first. What struck me the most about Warhol’s book was his unabashed ENTHUSIASM for modernity, especially as represented by new technologies. One legitimate response to the fb/twitter/youtube frenzy is a fear of what we’re losing (privacy? attention spans? hours and hours perhaps better spent pondering other things?) in focusing our culture around it. Warhol seems to go forth with no hesitation into new realms of technology. Instead of taking an alarmist stance, Warhol navigates this debate by casting his relationship to technology in human terms. He refers to an “affair with my television” and to his tape recorder as his “wife” (26). If he didn’t talk about them as human relationships, would he still be able to be so enthusiastic about them? How sincere is he being here, anyway? Can we infer – as Andrew seemed to in his framing of the book at the beginning of class – that Warhol would have been similarly excited about the new possibilities for self-promotion and self-construction that the internet affords, had he experienced it? What are the qualitative differences between the mediation of human relationships the internet affords versus television and tape recorders?

I thought our debate about what we can and can’t know about people via their facebook profiles was really interesting. Linkai’s point about face-to-face interaction being more valid than perusing someone’s profile is certainly legitimate – and something we all kind of agreed about, specifically re: the (non)usefulness of customs people fb-stalking their freshmen the summer before school starts to try to figure out what they’ll be like. But the thought I was trying to put forth at the time (kind of unsuccessfully) is better expressed with this Warhol quote:

“I usually accept people on the basis of their self-images, because their self-images have more to do with the way they think than their objective images do.” (69)

Maybe it’s my anthropology background, but I see facebook as a valuable layer of performativity that we can use to learn more about a person, so long as we’ve done our research enough to understand the “rules” of that community (don’t comment on every picture you look at, for example, or more subtly, what it means to list only one band among ‘favorite artists’ as opposed to everyone in your itunes…). We can debate about whether someone’s twitter feed or blog or facebook profile or youtube channel – or one-one-one friendship – is the ‘best’ way to understand them, and the existence of that debate relates to the confusing desire for ‘reality’ Shields explored in his book. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t dismiss anyone’s online identity – constructed, presumably, with some degree of care, as completely NONuseful in a quest to learn about that person. To me, it’s more about understanding the nature of information we’re getting than classifying it as more or less valid.

To close, a related thought that kind of came together during our meeting – the reasons I chose fifteenseconds as my twitter handle:
1) Fifteenminutes (as a cute awarhol shoutout) was already taken. Duh. Digital interconnectedness with the world renders an idea that might have been original within our seminar group hopelessly too-late.
2) I know he probably meant it metaphorically, but I think fifteen minutes is too long in an internet age. Who would watch a 15 minute youtube video?
3) Maybe I’m scared of fifteen minutes of fame – I didn’t have a twitter until I had to have one for this class, and I’m not Andy Warhol. There’s still something pretty frightening about it for me…although I guess it’s kind of paradoxical to emphasize a desire to stay out of the limelight in the name of a vehicle for putting myself in it.

PS: Sorry I can’t match Andrew’s embedded-link-intensity!

Dispatches from a Burger-Eating Contest

Discourse on a burger eating contest may seem somewhat out of place here, but bear with me for a moment – I promise there’s a point to all of this. First, though, some background is necessary.

For 364 days a year, the concept of competitive eating is beyond me – I cannot understand its appeal, nor do I especially care to try. Not that I thought about it especially often, but I suppose I used to have this attitude all 365. Then, I was persuaded to put aside my indifference-verging-on-disdain for the ‘sport’ when Z-Burger, a favorite neighborhood burger joint, held its first annual “Independence Day Burger Eating Championship” last year.

Two friends (Sarah and Alex) and I decided to attend since we had become a little obsessed with the restaurant throughout our senior year of high school, and we figured that if we were going, we needed to go all out. Choosing to celebrate our love of the restaurant rather than support a particular competitor (we didn’t know who was competing, anyway), T-shirts were made and copies of the restaurant’s logo were affixed to headbands, shorts, and sunglasses.

We went and had a good time, so going back this year was an obvious decision. Having lost Alex to inflexible working hours, Sarah and I once again donned our “Z-Burger Fan Club” shirts for the competition’s second year. As we arrived, people eyed our homemade Z-gear with mild interest, amusement, or concern. Clearly, the competitors were to be the main spectacle of the day, but we were not going unnoticed ourselves.

One of the “Ladies of Z-Burger” there to help keep score came over and asked about the outfits. “We should get you guys on TV,” she says, impressed. Indeed, while I don’t think we ever ended up making the cut into any news stories that aired, we did end up on camera a few times during the contest, as the event was both streamed live on the web and taped for some local media outlets.

After the contest, the crowd had their chance to mingle with the contestants. Sarah and I took pictures with a few of our favorites, and a few commented that they remembered us from the year before. The restaurant’s owner, Peter, took pictures with Sarah and me, and the three of us do a number of pictures with several contestants. I went to get my shirt signed by the second- and third-place finishers (the winner, who had defended his previous championship, had already signed after winning the previous year). As “Mouth of the South” finishes signing, I turn away and am stopped by a woman, who hands me one of the t-shirts handed out at the contest. She asks, excited, “Do you think you would be able to get him to sign it?”

Sarah and I pose with first- and second-place finishers Furious Pete (left) and Mouth of the South (right).

Thinking back over it all, I realized that Sarah and I had become, to a certain extent, part of the event – just like the competitive eaters were essential to the viewing experience at the contest, so were fans who would get into it enough to, say, draw giant Z’s across a pair of shutter shades, or shout enthusiastically for anything. In taking on that role, we’d acquired a celebrity-light status, becoming the bridge between the elite of the event and the attendees. The woman who asked me to get her shirt signed, for example, saw me and figured that I had some higher level of access than she did. And who knows? Maybe I did. After all, nobody else got offered the big check presented to the winner after he declined to take it with him.

At the risk of overanalyzing the day, I must say that I found this to be a very informative experience on the topic of Digital Fame, even if there was nothing digital about it. In a rough sense, I can see some similarities between Sarah, Alex, and I pulling out all the stops to go to the contest and, say, someone who posts a video on YouTube. The motivations (sometimes conscious, but sometimes less so) to be noticed, to bewilder, and to be laughed at pervaded the experience, even if in retrospect we couldn’t exactly understand why we wanted to be such spectacles in the first place.

But there was more to the day than just our wanting people to laugh at us. We were trying to engage with the brand that we idolized in a way that could be viewed as “selling out,” but really has become quite acceptable and typical in an age where it’s normal to “Like” a clothing brand on Facebook, or tweet at a TV network about how much you enjoyed this week’s episode of your favorite show. Who knows, maybe you might a tweet back, or have your fandom recognized in some other way? Even Haverford’s own snack bar, the Coop, has giveaways for its Facebook fans. And, back at the contest, our costumes were rewarded with tokens worth free food on future visits. Marketing is nothing new (nothing would have stopped me from dressing up for the contest in the days before Facebook), but I’ve realized that social media has found new ways to entrench publicity stunts and brand-name consumerism in our culture. There’s definitely much more on this topic worth exploring, and I hope to do that during the seminar.

Still, I don’t want to end with the sentiment that the only thing social media boils down to is marketing, because I feel like there has to be more to it. The only problem is that the “more” is much harder to identify. I came into this seminar interested in gaining an understanding of the motivations of those in pursuit of Digital Fame, and I think my experience at the burger eating contest was a good first step down that path. Now, new questions are emerging, and I look forward to keeping you updated as we look for the answers.

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?