TOUR #3: Popularity
February 22, 2008
I posted my third tour today–on popularity–so, yes another tour, but this is the first where I wore a paper-crown and prom dress…
I guess you can see, I’m working on my performance, which is itself an aspect of popularity on YouTube. While I insist that any system of popularity creates and supports mediocrity–like in High School, the unoriginal and uncritical rise to the top: the blond-babes of the pom-squad–talent is still part of the picture, it’s just talent in the name of the hegemonic (in High School, boys’ sports, girls’ sex) and on YouTube, the corporate (music videos, television shows). Like High School cheerleaders, the popular on YouTube do what we already like, in ways we already know: interchangeable, indistinguishable. Entertaining but not threatening, popular YouTube videos speak to a middle-of-the-road sensibility in and about the forms of mainstream culture and media, pushing underliers into the weird cliques and hidden rooms of high school–what I call NicheTube–where one falls off the radar of popularity, underserved and unobserved by YouTube’s system of ranking.
NicheTube can function by the rule of originality, critique, difference, and zaniness (although much that is off the radar really wishes it could be on), but the work there (including Learning from YouTube) already speaks to the standards, conventions, interests and winners on YouTube: the in-crowd. While it’s often fine to be off the radar, doing your own weird thing with your wacky friends, there is the rub that even if others are interested, it’s likely, given YouTube’s size and poor search systems, that they’ll never find you. Sure, things bubble up from Niche Tube all the time–here’s your tiara–but chances are that one golden video is a winner precisely because it’s like something already winning, only a little different. While we can all attest whether popularity (or its reverse) worked for us in High School, I’ll end by suggesting the obvious: it is not the best way to run a forum of knowledge/culture/art production and distribution. As we learned through my students’ project on race on YouTube, popular videos about black people reflect and reinforce the standard (racist) views of our society, while NicheTube videos support black self-love and politics. Like television, you get things you like, but rarely things that you don’t already know, things that shake you, change you, and trouble you.
I’ve also spoken about this (and other things YouTube) in an interview I did with Henry Jenkins for his (popular) blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, and I hope you’ll take the time to read more there.