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Outsiders After Viral Video

Aymar Jean Christian January 27, 2012 Culture No Comments

Originally posted at Hacktivision

If YouTube’s massive overhaul – many years in the making – revealed anything, it was our deep investments in the transformative potential of web video. Many observers have criticized the company’s move as selling out, a way to streamline the site’s chaos for the benefit of advertisers. (What else is a media company to do?).

We care about web video in part because we care about outsiders and independents making popular and profitable content for mass audiences, on a level rarely seen in media history. Web video, though, has been changing – long before YouTube’s redesign – compelling us to think deeply about who becomes popular, how, why and under what circumstances.

Consider the 2010 hit, “Bed Intruder Song,” whose producers were subject to an extensive New York Times profile in August 2011 and have become symbols of the next wave of video – quirky, popular and sustainable.

The serendipitous product of a local news team, an angry black queer man and a group of young independent producers, “Bed Intruder” capitalized on Antoine Dodson’s apparently humorous rant about the attempted rape of his sister. The video had already attracted following when it was passed on to the Gregory Brothers, of Auto-Tune the News, who did what they do best: “auto-tuned” it. The song was the brothers’ biggest yet, garnering them and Dodson enough cash to catapult their careers.

“Bed Intruder” was a fascinating example of some of YouTube’s most fascinating and sobering dynamics, from the mass appeal of ridiculing weirdos to the incredible marketability of such outsiders. To some, the Gregory Brothers made light of a deeply troubling situation: the violence of the poor, black, rural South, a reality we so rarely confront as a nation. Yet Michael Gregory saw Dodson “not as a caricature but as a charismatic personality,” he told the Times, a prime source for their winning comedy formula.

The Brothers might represent a broad transition in web video, from the spontaneous distribution of scandalous moments to formula-driven comedy curated for audiences – among the most popular video genres and key to YouTube’s transition to television. If this is true, one wonders what is lost in the shift from spontaneity to predictability.

As web video matures, content rarely goes “viral” today. The accepted term among academics is now “spreadable,” focusing on how content is shared in communities not how many views it gets. Now new media companies like the former Next New Networks, under which Auto-Tune the News was distributed, and video syndication have scaled web video into a business and curated those communities. From Maker Studios and The Collective to Machinima.com, the secret to millions of views is having an audience not “going viral.” In fact many of the supposed viral videos of the past five years have originated from performers and producers with smaller built-in audiences, helped by YouTube’s saavy subscription-based network. By 2011, moreover, traditional media companies had realized, again and again, the marketability of the viral form (see work by Max Dawson and Nick Marx). The New York Times’ “Video Virology 101” feature alongside the Gregory Brothers’ profile, populated by peculiar one-off amateur videos, looked more like a memorial than a sign of the times.

Next New Networks, gobbled up by YouTube, was among numerous pioneers of this trend, creating franchises of simple and catchy ideas. But before companies were trying to make viral humor into a business, individual videos were proving their mettle.

Some of what distinguished these “viral” videos was a broad sense of the peculiar. “David After the Dentist” and Fred had millions gawking at the rare sight of kids on or off medication. Even stranger was the sight of another misbehaving queer boy, Chris Crocker, crying over Britney Spears, in what remains one of YouTube’s most classic, least-liked videos. Continuing with the theme of flawed or strange masculinity are the videos of Tay Zonday, a small black man with a big voice. Women too, as objects of male desire, received plenty of attention, from EQAL’s Lonelygirl15 videos to Barely Political’s Obama Girl to a host of vloggers, all providing further evidence Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure” might be due for a comeback.

Call it “viral pleasure and narrative video.” Plenty of videos went “viral.” But if we peel back the curtain we know what fueled virality was people passing along interesting content to friends. Many times these were kittens or music videos, but on a regular basis they were also crazy outsiders, whose strangeness entertained the masses in a circus of desire and fascination.

This is only one history of web video. Another parallel history hinges on more deliberately produced and joke-driven humor best and first exemplified by The Lonely Island’s “Lazy Sunday,” YouTube’s first big hit and a product of, in part, traditional media’s desire to reinvent itself in a new medium. Far from outsiders, this kind of web video looked more familiar: as in Hollywood, this form is characterized by (primarily) white men purveying broad, if male-centered, comedy.*

It should not be surprising, for a number of reasons, professional web videos delivered much more predictable representations than its upstart counterparts. They more often featured, or were produced by, guys like the Gregory Brothers. With a web comedy formula firmly in place (short, quick, brash or ironic) it made sense those with the most resources and cultural capital – as members of advertising’s most coveted demographic – would produce the videos.

Take as an example Funny Or Die’s most popular videos. Leading the pack was long-reigning titan “The Landlord,” brainchild of Will Ferrell, who for much of the 2000s was one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. Populating the rest of the list were Justin Bieber, who merged professional production with amateur video in “Bieber After the Dentist,” the mock “sex tapes” of various female starlets, and a bikini-clad Paris Hilton bashing John McCain. While all brilliant satire in its own right, it could hardly be called culturally avant-garde, not terribly indistinct from comedic television or film.

Curated web comedy, made by or for traditional advertisers, is different from more mainstream humor, often edgier and faster – though with networks like HBO, Cartoon Network and Comedy Central hiring up these producers and adopting their conventions those lines are increasingly blurred. But, unlike the “outsiders getting in” narrative of “viral” video, it remains mostly geared toward the same audiences as Hollywood and features familiar representations. Many of it, like mainstream film, even fails the Bechdel test.

If viral videos could be categorized as an occasional freak show, and curated comedy as more formulaic and Hollywood-lite, what then is left? Web video remains a dynamic space, where producers and entrepreneurs of all cultures and politics are trying to make content geared toward mass audiences. The richness of the web series market is a big, undervalued part of that.

But there are limits to how far videos can spread. Marginalized identities often need more time to tell their stories than these short comedy videos can allow. It is telling that Issa Rae, creator of the hit web show The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, once described her series as going only “mildly viral.” Even as its dedicated audience of black women spread word about the show, and newcomers started to watch, her series amassed tens of thousands, not yet millions, of fans. However dedicated that audience, even after coverage from NPR to Essence, Rae could not find a sponsor, instead raising nearly $60,000 through crowdsourcing to finish her first season.

Therein lies the conundrum. If you are an outsider trying to get “in” – to an industry for a sustainable career as performer or producer – how many options do you have creatively, especially as the market coalesces around a few large networks/companies? And what kinds of representational sacrifices must you make? At this specific moment in history the answers for web video might be “not too many” and “quite a few.”

Both viral and curated video have yet to offer completely satisfying paradigms. Still, new oddities and cultural forms are always, potentially, poised for popularity.

 


*Vidcon is an interesting example, as a concerted effort by pop web video to argue for itself as an industry, not a series of random videos. Most of the speakers at Vidcon 2011 were, indeed, white men. The conference even featured a panel for female YouTubers, because, as LA Weekly noted, “even on YouTube, the industry is somewhat male-dominated” and women must learn how to “how to fend off ‘creepers.’”

Photo credits:

-The Gregory Brothers, thegregorybrothers.com.
-Screenshot, YouTube.
-Machinima.com
-Screenshot, Funny or Die.
-Awkward Black Girl, awkwardblackgirl.com

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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