My friend Brian Goldfarb and I just released Distraction Span: Technologies of Productive Disruption at MediaCommons. “With this cluster of The New Everyday we initiate a conversation about social media that sidesteps the panic over youth and digital distraction while not being afraid to look head-on at their everyday engagements with mobile devices and social networking.” Now we hope you will join the conversation.

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My dear friend and colleague Brian Goldfarb and I are co-editing a section of MediaCommons’ New Everyday on youth, media, and distraction. Our call begins:

“We invite short, lively, multi-modal work that will kickstart new conversations that sidestep the panic over digital distraction: that is to say, the fear-inducing diagnosis that networked media is rewiring young minds, displacing valuable forms of engagement, and making sustained reflection a thing of the past. There is undeniably something new and challenging about the forms of multitasking and fragmented or interlaced communication that is fostered by the culture of new media. There is also something old about the panic over new forms of media and the perceived wholesale detriment they pose to learning and thinking” … read more and submit!

I posted my second tour today, on entertainment on YouTube.

(note the goofy performance: trying to be lively…YouTube entertainment does rely on quality performance)

This was the first thing we learned in the class: while it wasn’t any good for education, YouTube is killer for entertainment, fun, wasting time. The nature of its successful entertainment is not much different from what audiences loved before it, in fact, a considerable amount of its video is made by media professionals, crossing platforms legally or through the work of a fan: TV shows, music videos, bands performing live, commercials. What differs most is platform and duration: YouTube as at-home or mobile, viewer-controlled delivery system of delectable media morsels.

I would suggest that YouTube entertainment relies upon, integrates and condenses three effective stylistics from previous media—humor, spectacle, and self-referentiality—to create a new kind of video organized by ease, plenitude, convenience, and speed (this does sound like a TV commercial, I know). The signature YouTube video is easy to get, in both senses of the word: simple to understand, an idea reduced to an icon or gag, while also being painless to get to. Both spectacle and self-referentiality are key to this staple ease: a visual or aural sensation (crash, breast, celebrity’s face, signature beat, extreme talent, pathos) often being the iconic center, or totality, of a video (spectacle), or an already recognizable bite of media holding the same function (self-referentiality): understandable in a heartbeat, knowable without thinking, this is media already encrusted with social meaning or feeling. YouTube videos are often about YouTube videos which are most often about popular culture. They steal, parody, mash, and re-work recognizable forms, thus maintaining standard styles and tastes. Thus, humor enters through parody, the play on an already recognizable form, or slap-stick, a category of spectacle. (Interestingly, spectacle and humor were definitive of early cinema, the devolping use of this new medium that also spoke across class and continent, in a simplistic visual lingua franca. However, typically, ironic self-referentiality is understood about an art-form in its later or last stages.)

The entertainment of YouTube creates a postmodern TV of distraction, where discrete bites of cinema controlled and seen by the discrete eye of one viewer are linked intuitively, randomly, or through systems of popularity, in an endless chain of immediate but forgettable gratification that can only be satisfied by another video. I imagine that this must inevitably lead to two unpleasant, if still entertaining, outcomes: distraction forecloses action, and surface fun precludes depth.

If YouTube videos (and I am reflecting primarily on the dominant or conventional uses of the medium), or the site itself, are to be used for anything other than blind and numbing entertainment (and certainly on niche-tube, this is happening with some [small] success: more on this forthcoming in later posts), it is critical that the language of YouTube develops to include context, history, theory, and community, and by this I mean both the architecture of the site and the form of the videos theselves. At the 24/7 A DYI Video Summit that I attended last week at USC, the media activists on my panel wanted to discuss just this (new) state of affairs. Certainly more people are making and viewing media, access to channels of production and distribution are rapidly growing to an almost incomprehensible scale. However, even the most moving of videos needs to be connected to something (other than another short video)–people, community, ideas, other videos to which it has a coherent link–if it is to create action over distraction, knowledge instead of free-floating-info-zaps.

You may be wondering what I make of the “entertainment” value of millions of unique regular people speaking about their lives, and to each other, in talking-head close-ups (the style I use). While in every way a statement against corporate media, I would suggest that humor (self-mocking, irony), spectacle (of authenticity, of pathos, of individuality), and self-referentiality (to the vernacular of YouTube) also combine to create the entertainment value of this staple form, these “bad” videos. But I’ll hold on this for later posts.