Tube or Not Tube. That is the question…
What would Marshall McLuhan say if he could invoke Shakespeare and Joyce at this juncture in the co-evolution of mass media, western culture, advanced capitalism, global consumerism, and technology? Are televisions the new extensions of man? Are 2″ screens our new eyeballs? Or faces perhaps? What would McLuhan say about Survivor, Lost, iTunes, iPods, MySpace, Youtube?
He would talk about how these technologies were not just extensions of our senses, and our bodies, but electric incarnations of our society and culture also. He’d note the revolutionary potential of a youth culture in charge of its own medium–MySpace–a vocal, incisive, and uncensored alternative to mass media. Mini-me-dia to Mass Me-dia. He’d point out the ways in which an ever-present dial-tone–full-on and device agnostic connectivity–has spread like the very gases warming our atmosphere, becoming atmosphere and life-sustaining element in its own right, as our society and culture have adapted to the demands of ever-possible access, interruption, and communication.
He would claim that media are about the ways we see ourselves, as much as they are about extending our sight and enhancing our vision.
Since attending OnHollywood earlier this year, at which I got the distinct impression that a bubble was forming again (for Hollywood had rediscovered the internet’s capacity to act as a broadcast medium!)… Perhaps this time it’s not so much one bubble as it is just a lot of foam. Anyways, one of the bubbles I get stuck in, and try as I might I can’t quite pop the concept on this one, is the viral video bubble.
For one, this is definitely a social phenomenon, and if anything at all, an example of social media. Not, as I’ve heard claimed, broadcast at 2″. The only thing that Youtube has in common with television is 29.97 frames per second. And if you’re seeing that I want your net connection. We’d miss the point entirely if we thought Youtube and TV were related for their physical characteristics. A medium is not understood by its form factors, even its modes and functions–it’s understood by the social practices in which it’s embedded.
The social practice that’s interesting with Youtube is communication. Analysts have been right to call it viral insofar as it evokes the viral marketing of email and web marketing. But viruses pass from host to host in a biological system that doesn’t involve exchanges of meaning and interactions steered towards reaching understanding. Viruses just simply copy themselves into their host. It’s “communication” as replication. I don’t like the term “viral” because it’s a false metaphor. And if we’re going to use metaphors, they should enhance our understanding of the phenomenon, not subtract from it.
If I send a friend a Youtube link, I’m saying to my friend “I enjoyed this, you will too.” The act is purely communicative. The video here has no value in and of itself; it’s become a token of communicative exchange. (This is the sense in which we say that it’s the thought that counts; Youtube is Hallmark). It’s that I’m saying, and to whom I’m saying it, that matters more than what’s showing at frame 127 of the video. In most cases, a response to the effect of “that was hilarious” will do. We don’t have to acknowledge/prove to our friends that we’ve even seen the video sent us.
What am I saying by sending a video link? Or by sending a video? I’m saying the same thing that I would say if I were sending a blog url, a book review, song, etc. I’m saying “I have you in mind” in relation to this “thing.” In saying that, I’m also asking to be acknowledged. I’m saying, I don’t see you in front of me; were I to see you in front of me, in fact, I might not have to show you this stupid video, because I wouldn’t need to get your attention, and really, ultimately, it’s your attention I want. Not just that, I wanted to feel your attention…. I’m sending you this video to get your attention. It’s scratching that itch, the itch of anomie, of being “connected” to you across this space that needs more echo, needs more reflections, windows, mirrors, and light, more presence, a there for the there to be in.
We’re going to look back on all this some day and Youtube is going to look as like a tv built on hypercard. Camphones will remind us of 8 bit macs. One thing won’t have changed. That will be our need to socialize technologies of communication; to cut windows into the walls, to warm the rooms, put mirrors in the hallway; to hook cameras up to screens and to hang those screens in public places so that we see ourselves watching, watching Mcluhan, watching Mcluhan watching us. I see you. Now, do you see me?