Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Core Post 5: I like Youtube

So much of the “television” I watch nowadays consists of Youtube tutorials, vlogs, and haul videos. 


Show me how much washi tape you bought today.

I like to think that this avoidance of cinematic, narrative, scripted, and produced content represents a burgeoning interest in the kind of "new media" we've been talking about throughout the semester and NOT an indication that my brain has already shut itself down for (eternal) summer vacation. In any case, I look at this subset of Youtube videos, which fall into the recently profitable 'Lifestyle' category of social media content, as being specially positioned at the intersection of multiple discourses from this and past weeks: TV and the Internet, producers and consumers, private and public space, personal authorship and commercial sponsorship.

In "Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web," Tara McPherson (Hi!! :-D) identifies the initial distinctions between television and the Internet (in its relative infancy) that have become so nebulous today. While both mediums are united by and contingent upon an "illusion of liveness," TV was historically seen as a passive experience, through which audiences were encouraged to identify with onscreen content via a fixed gaze. In contrast, the Web represents three different "modalities of experience," categorized by McPherson as: volitional mobility, the scan-and-search, and transformation. To summarize them: 1) A sense of mobility and agency driven by volition is represented by the cursor, which marks our presence and trajectory, tracking "clicks" or choices that “guide” our virtual movements; thus desire is formed and transmitted through the processes of “liveness” or “real time.” 2) The scan and search is an expression of volitional mobility, a lateral impulse toward 'the next thing' rather than an imposed unity or fixed gaze (as with TV). And finally 3) The promise of transformation is embedded in all Internet processes for they offer the opportunity to “[remake] information into a better reflection of the self” (205). Of course these modalities of experience are often a by-product of corporate machinations and are not without ideological consequences. McPherson questions how Web spaces might train their users for a "new Neo-Fordist experience" (207) and "enable specific selves and particular publics" (205).

While Youtube is a media exhibitor with its own structures of engagement distinct from other websites, Youtube Lifestyle videos (haul vids, vlogs, reviews, and tutorials) do engage with ideas of desire and liveness through apparent authorship. With roots in lifestyle blogging, many Youtube "authors" have capitalized on bedroom content creation as a democratic and transparent space through which corporate bodies (such as those mentioned in McPherson's article) might be counteracted or filtered out. The subjects, hosts, authors, and producers of these videos are the Everyman or Everywoman, teaching viewers how to successfully apply a smokey eye from a fellow consumer's perspective. Yet desire and liveness play a key role in the videos' educative appeal: one key aspect of engagement is the viewer's identification with the video producer. Check these GRWM (Get ready with me) videos (1.6 million results!!):



Viewers get to feel like they are occupying the same time and space as the producer, and producers work hard to make it feel as if the video is a collaborative effort and shared experience -- the assumption is that together, producer and consumer are getting ready for a night out or unboxing a new product or driving to check out a new coffee shop. Such an intimate unveiling of personal life thus becomes an avenue of commerce and instruction: as producers build relationships with their viewers, they not only expect participation in return (Subscribe, comment, and share plz!), but implicitly adopt positions of power through the subject position. One need only look at "career" or "veteran" Youtubers such as Zoella, Michelle Phan, Pixiwoo, and Jenna Marbles to locate how an industry can be built around the "I" of a video blog--via the merging of work and leisure, research and entertainment, labor and merchandise, within what McPherson calls a "neo-Fordist feedback loop" (206). Furthermore, as companies and corporations have become alert to the power of the lifestyle vlogger, sponsorships, advertisements, endorsement deals have emerged as a by-product and marker of their success.

Not only can you be a Youtube partner,




You can be an outside brand ambassador:

























This has sparked a pretty recent conversation (though long in the making) about transparency, trust, and industry practice, in which consumers have begun to draw dividing lines and to negotiate the conditions of their loyalty within the creator/consumer relationship:

New FTC guidelines for sponsored content
Can You Really Trust a Beauty Blogger?










More things to think about: How do Youtube and Youtubers continue to structure the volitional viewing experience for their watchers? How might the 'double construction' of such content both indoctrinate and alert viewers to their own practices of image construction?




14 comments:

  1. Very interesting post, Cheny. As a longtime viewer of beauty vlogs, I enjoy scrutinizing my own compulsion to view things like Haul and GRWM videos. I do think part of the appeal of these videos tied to their "liveness" and the viewer's self-identification to the producer. However, the commercialization of these vloggers often discourages my personal viewership, as I tend to stop watching the producers I perceive to be heavily sponsored and therefore less honest in their opinions. Can these vloggers be monetized without disturbing their appeal?

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    1. Here is an article on youtube beauty vlog economics: http://thezoereport.com/beauty/how-much-vloggers-make/. The how-to beauty vlogging has become a multi-billionare business, a for-profit promotion site disguised as a “education” channel, where vloggers can make money by getting exposure for beauty and fashion brands. Youtube is marketed as a utopian social platform where everyone can make their voices heard, but there are reasons why certain voices get to be heard. Different from celebrity commercials, youtube vlogs usually package vloggers as everyday friends to the consumers. Vloggers are recognized as nice, grassroots professionals who are willing to share their *secrets* (hence a higher sense of authenticity and affability than other celebrities), and have a higher interactivity with the consumers (i.e. would reply to youtube comments). I also feel reluctant to follow vloggers' product suggestions (learn what you want to learn, but don't spend money!!), but when things don't work out, I still will think ah maybe I should use THE product -.- The corporate interest embedded in vlogs is gradually internalized as my own interest.

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    2. Hui, your point that "there are reasons why certain voices get to be heard" reminds me of what Lisa Parks' point that: "the convergence of television and computers is not just about technical mixing; it also activates gendered assumptions about 'active" users and 'passive' viewers, class-based discourses related to digital access and speed, and broader issues of cultural taste and social distinction" (134). Far from being utopian, Youtube has become a highly monetized platform through which a 6-figure career (or more!) is entirely possible. Compared to the melange of content of its early days, nowadays reliable and popular Youtubers must now create high quality (mostly biweekly) video content using fancy HD cameras and often a team of producers, in order to attract and retain subscribers. Numbers and branding totally matter. If you don't have many subscribers or a "developed" channel image, it's unlikely you will be able to build a competitive Youtube presence. It's interesting to compare popular channels and Youtube producers to video content that goes viral -- Vine'd segments, compilations, and remixed content which most often satirizes or stereotypes particular demographics, groups, and individuals. While some subjects of viral content have been able to develop their "presence" into a viable platform (Grumpycat!), such determinations do raise interesting questions about the politics of Internet presence.

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    3. Hui, your point that "there are reasons why certain voices get to be heard" reminds me of what Lisa Parks' point that: "the convergence of television and computers is not just about technical mixing; it also activates gendered assumptions about 'active" users and 'passive' viewers, class-based discourses related to digital access and speed, and broader issues of cultural taste and social distinction" (134). Far from being utopian, Youtube has become a highly monetized platform through which a 6-figure career (or more!) is entirely possible. Compared to the melange of content of its early days, nowadays reliable and popular Youtubers must now create high quality (mostly biweekly) video content using fancy HD cameras and often a team of producers, in order to attract and retain subscribers. Numbers and branding totally matter. If you don't have many subscribers or a "developed" channel image, it's unlikely you will be able to build a competitive Youtube presence. It's interesting to compare popular channels and Youtube producers to video content that goes viral -- Vine'd segments, compilations, and remixed content which most often satirizes or stereotypes particular demographics, groups, and individuals. While some subjects of viral content have been able to develop their "presence" into a viable platform (Grumpycat!), such determinations do raise interesting questions about the politics of Internet presence.

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  3. Thanks for this post, Cheny! I totally agree that these kinds of videos perfectly illustrate the conflation of Web culture with consumer culture in the ways McPherson's article describes, and in many ways the 'small screen' format of YouTube itself echoes that of television -- if the Internet is the new living room, the YouTube video is its new TV set, embedded in a larger and perhaps more chaotic personal landscape, comfortingly rectangular, connecting people across domestic spaces, maybe? I also am interested in the way that these kinds of practices are still deeply embedded in the older forms of advertising and consumer culture -- that is, the most successful vloggers end up with book deals (like Zoella), print ads, or TV spots. I wonder if, or when, we will begin to grant online media its own legitimacy, on its own terms, and what forms that will take.

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  4. Great post Cheny!

    Although I *occasionally* indulge in tutorials from beauty gurus (heyclaire is probably my favorite) and watch tons of cooking channels, I’m somewhat ambivalent about YouTube and many YouTubers. I’m not turned off by sponsored content; if YouTube is their full-time job, then they have to make money somehow! But I am put-off by the excess of consumerism promoted by many beauty gurus. I think the concept of hauls is particularly troubling…watching someone like Zoella (who is certainly a millionaire at this point) show off what she’s been buying? It’s just bizarre to me.

    I’m also interested in the content creator/audience relationship. Seeing the reaction when Essie Button (another fav of mine) transitioned to using her real name, Estee Lalonde, as her channel name, was pretty wild. The response from her subscribers ranged from threatening to unsubscribe because she's “changed” and is no longer the real Estee, to praising her for being her true self. Perceived authenticity and transparency seem to be essential to the success of a YouTuber - the moment that viewers think that a YouTuber is not being honest, they unsubscribe. Anyways, I’m interested in seeing what academic work on YouTube and YouTubers crops up in the coming years!

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  5. Thanks for the insight! I don't follow many YouTubers myself yet (Hannah Hart being the exception because obviously), but I'm intensely curious about the kind of constructed intimacy you described, which is so evident in fannish circles. I can't help but be reminded of a video I saw recently featuring a YouTuber attending the Oscars. It was of the "get ready with me" variety, except it was shot with a 360 degree camera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PMb8bfAXtE

    The ability to control the direction of the camera can only add to the intimacy of that YouTuber-fan relationship, I imagine. Even being granted a small amount of agency really brings forth a sense of presence and liveness (even in a recorded vid!) that may be key factors in establishing a sense of intimacy.

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  6. The idea of “lifestyle” vlogs on Youtube draws attention to the ways in which the center of production has shifted so dramatically in the last couple of decades. I think the ability to produce broadcastable images on a phone or a desktop really changes the stakes when it comes to imagining the way media and “life” itself are connected. While lifestyle, as you point out brings liveness literally to the palm of the everyman, Youtubers have also used the medium as a way to document “life” itself. One could think of the many mom-and-baby channels, or “please see my cute dog” posts on Youtube (which i myself am distracted by), but there are also more extreme cases of actual documentation, as for instance this one in which Noah has been taking pictures of himself everyday…for 12. 5 years (Noah’s ark indeed):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPPzXlMdi7o

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  7. I don’t follow many youtube accounts, but the discussion here reminds me of other platforms such as instagram, where this friendly, disguised, soft promotion embedded in youtube vlogs can also be easily found. Take food accounts on instagram for examples: @nobread earns free food everyday by posting what they eat. @eatingnyc even got hired by a PR firm because of its instagram posts (porfolio it is)! In fashion area, models or fashion bloggers (i.e. @chiaraferragni) are paid to travel around the world for fashion weeks, with tons of free fashion and beauty treatment. These social media accounts make money by simply posting what they are doing, by constructing a unique image and making their lives desirable. There is a sense of inauthenticity behind these enjoyable, attractive everyday posts. Some accounts earn great popularity mainly by satirizing this constructedness of social media, such as @socalitybarbie, which use instagram’s visual language to make fun of instagram activities. But also, aren't these satire posts also calculated performances?

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  9. The creator/consumer relationship you bring up between YouTubers and their viewers is really interesting. Prof. McPherson mentions that "choice, personalization, and transformation are heisted as experiential lures, accelerated by feelings of mobility and searching..."(206) and as a viewer, I am made to believe that I get to choose a certain makeup guru based on my own personal tastes and identification with them. This may be true, but the viewer/consumer ultimately gets sucked into the neo-Fordist feedback loop (as you mentioned), where YouTube makeup gurus often endorse and promote all of the same products that are offered to them along with the many other popular gurus. These brands/companies are the ones who essentially shape both the viewer's and producer's personal tastes through offering free products and/or sponsorship to the YouTube makeup gurus.

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  11. Cheny, interesting post! I do follow a lot of authors, not on YouTube but Instagram, for learning how to make up. I never think about the question why they can convince me to follow them. Also, before reading your post, I never think that this kind of videos has “indoctrinated” or “alerted” me. For me, the reason is that this kind of video can present me a very apparent effect, which means that you can directly feel the difference between “before” and “after.” Meanwhile, it is a cheap and easy to get the change. Here is an example. After watching this video (this girl makes herself up to Taylor Swift), I started follow her.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9EF-r4LMUI

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