Even Obama: Irony in the Time of YouTube

January 16, 2009

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I put out a call for the community to help me find videos for my research for writing some upcoming talks about what I call “productive” fake documentary on YouTube. Although my numbers feel rather dinky considering the vast network of media-studies-type enthusiasts on the internet, I did acquire a pretty cool list of twenty YouTube videos, and associated ruminations, through my process. I’ve spent the past week trying to whip this up into shape, and happily can report that my thesis is now presentable to the public, and also, so timely, given the inauguration of the first YouTube president, that I decided not to wait until its official presentation in February at CAA and March, in Iowa, at their Avant-Doc conference.

“The week after the election, in a talk at the New York Public Library, Joan Didion lamented that the United States in the era of Barack Obama had become an “irony-free zone,” a vast Kool-Aid tank where “naïvete, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in” and where “innocence, even when it looked like ignorance was now prized.” Andy Newman, Sunday Styles Section, New York Times, November 23, 2008

Joan, seriously (umm…ironically?), have you spent much time on YouTube? You of all people must be aware that Barack Obama, heralded by The Washington Post, no less, as our first “YouTube President,”  also announced after his election the commencement of weekly broadcasts of his presidency’s “fire-side chats” on-line and on YouTube. While the tone, form, and message of these networked national addresses are decidedly serious, presidential even, Joan, you’re savvy enough to get the joke, to intuit the wink, the implied aside to a history of worn out presidents, tired fires, and cornball communications. His move, like most on YouTube, is irony-full: a regal black American taking up the hot-spot, filling the usually-segregated head-shot, a new kind of president-talk produced through documentary’s oldest, most eloquent sobriety, fireside-hot, only to be elegantly plopped into his society’s silliest platform. Incongruity-free? Naïve? I’d say not.

Furthermore, Joan, with all due respect to your many past cultural insights, you’re using, like so many from the pre-networked generations, terms that seem downright outdated for getting at the heart of today’s innovative on-line ways. Garden-style YouTube irony is not oppositional to innocence, as you mistakenly suggest, but rather a bedfellow to playful performances of naivete and even ignorance. Think dead-pan rendering of a gravitas never to be taken at face value. Think millions of regular people’s video attempts at the facial under-performances modeled by the professional cast of The Office. Obama simply, perhaps masterfully, twists this riff. His YouTube jam goes like this: the serious usually marks the funny, but in his version, hah! Get this…the serious is the serious. Really. YouTube is all irony, all the time, and our YouTube President wittily plays it against itself. Sincerely folks, on YouTube, who came first, Tina Fey or Sarah Palin? I think you know the answer. On YouTube, what gets watched more: Obama’s fire-side chats, Obama Girl, Obama on Ellen, or Obama via Will.i.am? Yes we can. Irony-free? No you can’t.
Interestingly, I’ve been engaged in a similar irony-joust with fellow YouTube scholar, Michael Wesch, who also, but not due to age or non-native-status, views YouTube as a happy community-building Kool-aid dispenser. I’ve suggested in a variety of fora on-line and off—sarcastically, sorta—that his cheery findings must have to do with where he lives (Kansas), or perhaps his field of training (Anthropology: they do love a happy native). But in this talk, I will choose to move this question from the jokey realm of the blog to the more academic framework of the fake-talk: how and why do some see sincerity where us black-clad, red-state, Obama-loving bitter, city-dwellers see hypocrisy, or is that hope, or perhaps hope hiding hypocricy?

Which leads me to “The History of LOLcats” (this video was suggested to me by Julie, via HASTAC.) Like Barack Obama, LOLcats are a significant irony dividing line. Do you, Kool-aid drinker, think people actually find them cute—ooooh how delightful, so sweet—or, like me, would you posit that they enable a sarcastic viewing position: a calculated posture of slightly mean-spirited looking down upon that other person who thinks they’re unimaginably adorable. This critical distance, not cuteness, is actually the deep pleasure to be found in this ironic YouTube staple.


It wil be this talk’s contention (coming soon in March!) that YouTube has escalated our culture’s intense irony indulgence to heights so unparalleled that it has actually become impossible, if not downright unpopular, to see the difference between sincerity and satire. We can’t. And fan that I am of Obama, yes we can, and hater (or secret lover) that I may be of LOLcats, in my talk I will suggest that there are great dangers to a visual culture (and the real it is or will be) where irony becomes so dominant as to be invisible, the very plight, I suggest, that befell none other than the esteemed, and erudite Joan Didion and Michael Wesch. It’s easy to miss.

9 Responses to “Even Obama: Irony in the Time of YouTube”

  1. Mike Wesch Says:

    It may be outside the parameters of what you want to do in this study, but there is plenty of irony in YouTube community interactions (and here I am using “community” not in the sense of some fantastical YouTubia where the kool-aid runs free, but just in the sense of people interacting with one another regularly). This comes out especially in the little games people play to get on the most subscribed list. The best place to start if you are interested is utubedrama.com.

    To really get the irony and sarcasm of lolcats you should go to the source. Go check out b over at 4chan. Lots of irony and sarcastic fun to be had over there … and they are the source of quite a bit of irony that finds its way to YouTube. (Ramp up your security before visiting though!)

    Mediated by Thomas de Zegontita has some great ideas about our ironist culture too. See especially page 36 where he lists a whole bunch of pre-YouTube examples from Married with Children to Malcolm in the Middle and of course, the Simpsons. He has a line that echoes your post above: “The whole of popular culture is drenched in an ironism only a professor could miss.” (referring to Richard Rorty)


  2. […] have gone as far as to suggest that “everything on YouTube is a fake documentary,” and this I still believe, and with real consequences, at […]


  3. […] Party (voting) rallies that led to their re-taking of the House. In all cases, we witness the same ironic free fall I’ve discussed earlier: perfectly real rallies organized around glaring glorious fakes that […]


  4. […] Party (voting) rallies that led to their re-taking of the House. In all cases, we witness the same ironic free fall I’ve discussed earlier: perfectly real rallies organized around glaring glorious fakes that […]


  5. […] Party (voting) rallies that led to their re-taking of the House. In all cases, we witness the same ironic free fall I've discussed earlier: perfectly real rallies organized around glaring glorious fakes that may or […]


  6. […] Across this blog and throughout my video-book I’ve worried about the “ironic free-fall” currently defining video on YouTube and the mediascape more generally. I’ve suggested that the hold of the fake and insincere has become so deep that even the sincerity card can no longer be played (by our president, no less!) So, imagine my surprise when earnestness is pleasantly pulled off by no less then hipster, indie smart-guy, Miguel Arteta, and an strong cast of supporting once-cynical fools (John C. Reilly, Ann Heche, Ronald Wilkes). […]


  7. […] Unproductive Fake,” in relation, in particular, to queer representation and YouTube ironic freefall might also prove […]


  8. […] history identity, movies, technology: now there’s the rub. However, since I believe that disbelief attached to mean-spirited mockery is itself the cultural norm and form then perhaps there’s another way to see this. Devil […]


  9. […] a form and its fake, can liberate critique and self-knowing. However, needless to say, my more current understanding of this mode of seeing and knowing as being dominant and ubiquitous online in the ways that we see […]


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