Pioneers is a column that focuses on discussions surrounding digital culture, including news, reviews and features of games and other webby things that are going on that are interesting. If you have something you’d like featured or think worth exploring get in contact – firstname.lastname@example.org, or sound off in the comments below.
Here’s a fact that you might not like. Do you know when iPlayer was made public? Christmas Day 2007. I remember Channel 4s version of this was to let me just download the first season of the IT Crowd as each episode came out, and watch it at my own pleasure. “I don’t understand” people said at me, guffawing as I stared at my laptop – why is that man saying the wrong things all the time? And how can a man be a geek and yet have an afro? It didn’t make sense, but now, it’s becoming a little clearer.
Now I watch far more telly through iPlayer than I do through the box, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Without a doubt, what people watch, and how people watch it, is changing dramatically. Though I hardly think you need me to spell this out.
One of the key components of this change was a little known website called “YouTube”. Youtube really has kicked everything up itself – we’re talking full on lost scrotums here guys (scrota?), elbows in ears sort of confusion. I’m sure we’ve all been at parties, where people swap videos they’ve seen, clamour over each other to share some bull shit video where a monkey rides a pig. Or even been to YouTube karaoke events, with a sort of choose your own cinema experience going on. Hell, even my own mother has been lost for a few days trailed from one Dog saying “I love You” to the next (nb, she does it because she enjoys seeing animals doing silly things, and not out of loneliness or because I don’t speak to her enough before you ask).
Regardless of your own watching habits, the ramifications of YouTube have made it to the mainstream. Its infiltration into TV Schedules, you know actual broadcast television, are now brimming with shows either dedicated to YouTube compilations (essentially improving the You’ve Been Framed formula exponentially) or else filling their other shows with cheap, but guaranteed hilarious content. You can’t move on tele for
some Bozo sharing a low quality clip of someone falling over. For better or worse, the TV has had to change.
But YouTube isn’t just opportune clips of unfortunate, but side-splittingly funny, mishaps – with YouTube people can become their own broadcasters. Now people don’t just watch, they make what they would want to see.
As part of this broadcast revolution, one excellent example is Jamal Edwards. Jamal started up SB.TV (which emerged through its own YouTube Channel) focusing on filming music and culture emerging in West London for a generation that doesn’t get what they know and watch shown on traditional institutions like the BBC – and since then has one of the leading youth-orientated broadcasters armed with little more than a video camera and a YouTube channel.
A whole medium of honest, and often dishonest, personal “to-camera” video blogging has developed, with people journalling to the world where before they would to a book never to be read. It sounds crass to say, but given the state of the world, it makes sense that the next Anne Frank – as horrible as that sounds – will be found on YouTube. I shudder to think but they may already be on there and due to the quantity of what’s there, may never be found.
The totally bat shit crazy, mad head-fuckery of it all, is that this service, this beautifully dense and experimental service that has genuinely appropriated broadcast television for the 21st Century was only founded in 2005. 2005! Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005. That same year, George W. Bush started his second term. And perhaps most memorable of all Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France before retiring (I have genuinely reached my lost prostrate “scrota” for this week).
In just 7 years, we’ve come a long way. Understandably, the service is in its infancy, and after the initial impetus to marvel at the spectacle of the unbelievable, the grotesque and the sublime, it is perhaps time to start reconsidering what YouTube can do, and where this service can take us.
People use YouTube for all sorts of things. The other day for example, I watched some top tips on how to sow a button, while I’ve had help in the past with all sorts of DIY tutorials, flat maintenance and tasks usually ignored by the domestic goddess hidden somewhere inside of me (note to self: most of my clothes are usually filed away under “floor”, it’s a very specific and nuanced filing system) .
YouTube is home to some genuinely innovative forms too. One of the smash-hit shows of the Edinburgh Festival was a live version of John Robertson’s brilliant interactive YouTube adventure game “The Dark Room” (a genuinely terrific and talented comedian within and without this genius work). It updates the well worn Room Escape games into a hilarious romp that works as well on screen as it does off – and which is well reported to have captured the heart of festival legend Brendan Burns who visited the show on many occasions to get his hand on the £50 prize fund.
In a more everyday sense of its use, it has transformed the way we listen to music too. Albums almost have to be released now as an accompanying playlist of videos – interconnected, concept or unique to each track (Lisa Hannigan’s are quite a nice example)- and often in a number of iterations for one track. The music industry, and the failing distribution channels attached to them, is scared shitless at the prospect of a whole generation who don’t buy their music, or even listen through premium subscription services (they don’t have access to financial services that let them, even if they could pay) – they construct their own MTV-esque schedules (from now on I will reer to as MeTV, ‘cos that would be how people should talk about such things, as unholy acronyms that don’t quite make sense when you look at it long enough); sure, there is advertising to subsidise this, and importantly revenues from live performance on the up, but if advertising revenue doesn’t pick up dramatically, how the industry can make money from recording acts is seriously undermined.
Subscription, on-demand, personalised feeds of videos is a future that will challenge much of what we know when it comes to television, video and film – far beyond what has already been seen. But even beyond this slight world of the broadcast industry, there are implications for other interests. Politically, it’s opened up avenues for citizen journalism, and sources for video alternatives to mainstream media that can theoretically circumvent censorship and problematic “editorial” decisions. The gentle suggestion is that with YouTube we can see things we shouldn’t be seeing, and the question can be asked: “by whose tastes are we being the truth?”
This leads to some problematic areas. One of the most haunting moments of my life was tracking down footage captured on a mobile phone of Saddam Hussein being executed. It wasn’t long ago but I can already feel myself emerging, like an enlightened butterfly from some bizarre angst-ridden chrysalis, but the prospect of seeing such a thing intrigued me with a perverse fascination. Before I really knew what I was seeing – the death of a man – I looked away, but the image still burns on my retina. I was attracted to the possibility of seeing something illicit, that shouldn’t legally have been captured, which now can’t be unwatched. Seemingly, there is footage of Tommy Cooper’s last performance – in which he dies on stage in the very mortal sense of the term – which I’ve vowed never to watch. There are some things which you can’t unwatch.
Although there are strict guidelines as to what can or can’t go on YouTube including graphic violence and nudity – I’m sure I don’t need to tell you but there are plenty of off shoot “tube” sites that provide video satisfaction in those particular areas – the scope and diversity potent within YouTube is incredible now that everyone can. The significance of what people can make and upload reached seemingly global importance after a YouTube video incited violence and protest in Libya and throughout Islamic communities around the world, and importantly inspired many more to get into the street, and online, and plead for peaceful tolerance and excuse the actions of other extremists. If anything, this fronted the importance we hold for Freedom of Speech in a democratic society, and highlighted the danger of a media industry controlled and dictated by the few over and above the networks of the many. Regardless of what really happened, we now have a medium where we the audience are no longer simply the passive consumers, but the discerning content creators, diligent taste setters and personal schedulers – and if we are to continue with any sense of decorum, somewhere between us we now have a great deal of responsibility as to how we move forward.
Focusing my attention to the subject, it was this week that K-Pop sensation Psy’s own Gagnam Style reached no. 1 in the UK chart – which itself has been revolutionised in the short time since downloaded singles counted (check out this little BBC archived piece) – meaning that, bizarrely, even your granny has probably now become aware and seen that video (and I guarantee they’ve given the dance a go, the Sexy Ladies). I’d like to think this means we have begun to reach a truly globalised culture of sharing, a multifarious conversation which transcends traditional national boundaries as much as others presented by language, generation and ideology – and I believe that this is something worth exploring.
Millions of users now use this service in the way they want, and orchestrate their tastes inline with those they choose to have around
them. My overly long explanation of a service of which you are already intimately aware leads me to this simple question: how do you use your ‘tube?
Next week I will write up some of what I do and enjoy with the service, and in particular video games, and ideally I’d like to feature the habits and tendencies of others throughout the coming weeks; what users do you subscribe to, which channels do you adore, what trends and types of video have you playlisting like mad? Get in contact below in the comments or by email – Hitch@Nanu-Nanu.com, and hopefully I’ll be able to collate them by genre or some other interesting thread that emerges, and we can look at some of the work of pioneers on YouTube. Smashing.