Serving as a viral open communication between both producer and consumer, YouTube’s goal has shifted from that of a digital sharing community to serving as a cultural text that incorporates humor, literature, advertising, self-reflection, and video art. The differentiating array of available videos serves as a representation and therefore commentary of culture itself. YouTube serves no one specific kind of viewer, in fact, it provides a digital platform where the idea of a genre is somewhat lost, choosing to categorize content based on popularity, novelty, and likeability. Setting the stage for a dynamic and therefore unlimited community of video footage, YouTube becomes a representation of culture in itself and serves as somewhat of an archive of the times.
A video can serve many different purposes as it’s meaning often shifts between the producer’s original idea and the viewers initial thought. Using YouTube as a platform to share said videos creates a definitive way to represent culture as there isn’t necessarily an application process to become part of the YouTube community. People post videos because they find them interesting, relevant, or want to create a public space out of a private one, which is essentially where video as a representation of culture is born. Because the viral site offers commentary both by video and text, it shares what’s going on right now. It offers opinions as to how people are feeling about a particular subject or cultural phenomenon whether that be high or low culture. Videos of cute cuddly kittens are just as popular as a speech by President Obama and sexually offensive commercials gain just as much viewership as a music video by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (if not more). Regardless of the title of high or low culture, newly emerging or long time established, YouTube offers an arena where culture is represented as popularity turn viewership.
YouTube, similar to many other digital spaces, has helped to secure the shift of “going viral” from an instance in cultural commentary to an established state of cultural being. If you want something to be seen, heard, shared, or recognized in a relevant and timely manner, occupying a viral space is the best way to ensure whatever statement trying to be made is actually heard. This fast track to so-called “digital fame” is so accurate, brands such as Axe have taken advantage of the free space to share some humor TV producers found too vulgar. Assessing the digital platform in this sense, it can be questioned whether culture as low as this should share in being a cultural commentary at all. Likewise, being that the viral space can now been deemed a state of cultural being, to put a filter on the phenomenon wouldn’t necessarily be an honest observation of our culture at its finest.
Making a shift from social commentary to literature, YouTube offers up its stage to both genres equally. With its ability to combine so many ordinary elements, making them distinctive and unique in an innovative way, the digital collection of cinematography turn social commentary has evolved the emergence of what it means to be “visual,” namely visual literature. At first thought, the idea of visual literature seems to be somewhat of an oxymoron, begging the question: how can literature be visual? Obviously we read a text, therefore it is visual, but as the viral trend seems to bleed into an apparent state of being, the idea of “text on a page” morphs into “text on a screen”.
1. Viral “Reading”
The concept of viral reading, born from text on a screen, made its way to YouTube early on, before the birth of combining graphics, text, sound, and motion. A video compiled by a YouTube subscriber incorporating her own simple graphics and the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” written by W.C. Williams, depicts the marriage between digital video and literature in somewhat of a basic form, all while creating a sense of “readership” throughout the video. As written words appear on the screen, they do so in a right to left fashion, each letter appearing sequentially to form an entire word, mimicking the experience of actually reading a text. The first minute of the video focuses on the poem itself, finally morphing into a video viewing experience and making the shift from reading to watching.
It was this particular video that connected digital and literary to create something of a new reading/watching experience. Because of its emphasis on the text and the simulation of experiencing what it actually feels like to read a text, I found the relationship between digital and literary to be stronger than my previous notion that digital was in fact solely digital and literature was found on a static page.
2. Self and Cultural Reflexivity
Known for its video component to the idea of cultural and social commentary, YouTube defines itself as “a place to discover, watch, upload, and share videos,” providing an outlet essentially for both self and cultural reflection. An unlimited number of digitally produced content finds itself at the hands of Internet users, which basically means, well everyone. Maintaining its sense of cultural reflection and commentary, YouTube provides seven most commonly searched or recently popular categories to choose from: music, movies, videos, comedy, Justin Beiber, sports, and Eminem. Horrifyingly enough, these seven choices simplify our culture as it has progressed through time. No doubt, they would have been somewhat different (or not even present) four years ago before the defining era of Justin Beiber and apparently Eminem.
Challenging and deconstructing the binary between private and public, YouTube thrives
and monopolizes on its ability to present once private material publically. While we would all like to think that our uploaded videos with us singing our favorite song are going to be a public sensation, often times they remain in our private sphere though they are shared in a public space. For those of us who have gotten lucky in catching our dog after eating a pot brownie or our kitten who falls asleep in random places on video, private moments become publically shared material. A dynamic is created between personal and public and what once was a self-reflection or anecdotal recording essentially becomes cultural commentary based on popularity and viewership. If people find the video relevant, it will be watched, shared, discussed, and might even end up on the morning news (only if you’re really lucky). It is in this instance that “going viral” proves to be an established state of being, as it is so imbedded in our everyday culture that even our local broadcasters want to add to the cultural commentary surrounding new born panda bears.
3. Advertising + Literature
While advertising is essentially never categorized as literature, a recent Fage Greek Yogurt commercial proves otherwise, pairing beautifully digitalized graphics, a poem by Brian Tierney, and a product in need of a good advertisement to boost sales shown both on YouTube and TV as a way to blur the lines between art, literature, and advertising itself. The use of Tierney’s poem “Plain” (read by Willem Dafoe) in the ad creates a simplistic, elegant, and aesthetically pleasing rendering of the word “plain” to describe yogurt, which is, incredibly plain. Though Fage is one of the few to incorporate such a beautifully written literary work of art to accompany the selling of a product so flawlessly, the brands decision to place the ad on YouTube certainly isn’t one of the first.
While many, if not most, commercials can now be found on YouTube, Johnson and Johnson Company was one of the first to utilize the digital space as the main distributor of both their men’s Axe body wash and the defining humor found in the advertisement
itself. With the intention of running the advertisement on young adult geared channels such as MTV, Comedy Central, and several others, network producers turned the Axe “Balls” campaign down due to crude humor and vulgar conceptualization. Recognizing YouTube as a platform for viral distribution, the Axe campaign appeared on the digital side, rendering millions of hits and a noticeably drastic increase in product sales. While the Axe story is somewhat humorous and interesting, it cements YouTube as a cultural tool for not only networking, but shared information turn cultural texts of the 21st century.
4. Literature as Sound
Though literature as sound is somewhat self-explanatory and incredibly commonly found on Youtube, it still proves to be the most expected and therefore searched means of finding literature on the digital space. Videos that vary from poetry readings, class lectures, and auditory artists such as Christian Wok (mentioned in my last post) display literature through the use of voice and sound. After making my own assessment of literature found on YouTube through the hundreds if not thousands of videos of people reading poetry to an audience, I concluded literary text as sound to be the most common form of literature found on the viral platform. Unfortunately, I also found it to be the most predictable and therefore, not as culturally unique as the other videos found, but in the end, I realized that I was wrong. Though many of the videos would not be considered culturally unique or these videos actually demonstrate literary text as both visual and cultural text.
Because of the drastic shift from static text on a page to digital literature, it would only make sense to provide a platform able to incorporate literary genres we once only knew as text and turn them into a cultural experience through video. Choosing to hear Sylvia Plath read her emotionally heart-wrenching poem “Daddy” allows for an incredibly different interaction with literature than maybe choosing to read the poem by oneself. Experiencing her voice, tone, momentary pauses, and thick dialect creates an experience through literature that includes an auditory sensation by way of YouTube.
5. Cinematography + Typography = Literature
As I stated in my most recent previous post, I accounted for the various ways literary artists use both typography and cinematography in addition to literature in order to create a viewing experience that handles literary texts in a sensory fashion. Being able to see and hear literary texts through the movement of digital effects, camera angles, and vibrant colors completely changes what it means to “read” the text. You’re not longer only reading with your eyes, but with your ears as well.
My last post featured the above video by Hugo Ball called “Seahorses and Flying Fish,” which blends harmonic and pleasing music, soft art, and poetry to heighten the textual version of a poem to one that now feels right at home in the digital world.