YouTube’s rapid rise mirrors that of motion pictures, and Bieber’s that of a century worth of stars.
Recently, Justin Bieber’s video for “Baby” surpassed Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to become the most watched YouTube video of all time, with more than 270 million views and counting. Ignoring the fact that many of these are likely to be repeat viewings, as opposed to unique views, it’s still an impressive number and further indication of YouTube’s status as a medium to be reckoned with.
It has only been five years since the first ever YouTube video, “Me at the zoo,” was uploaded by one of YouTube’s founders, Jawed Karim. Since then, YouTube has gone from concept to start-up to ubiquitous media platform. If the 2007 sale to Google for US $1.65 billion underlined the value of the entity, its position as the go-to app for smartphones, social networking, online news sites, and seemingly most other web-related media, has affirmed its prominent position within popular culture.
Intriguingly, YouTube’s rapid rise mirrors, in an accelerated fashion, the ascendance of a different visual medium just over a century earlier: motion pictures.
When Auguste and Louis Lumière held the first public screening of their cinematograph in Paris in late 1895, they were certainly not envisioning the start of a multi-billion dollar industry or the tabloid tribulations of that industry’s stars either. Their initial films, or actualities, focused on the mundane and everyday, demonstrating their invention’s ability to capture motion with engaging subject matter such as workers leaving their factory or a train arriving at a station. In fact, in a few short years, the Lumières were out of the motion picture industry altogether and more prominently involved in photography.
Karim’s initial upload is not dissimilar to those initial Lumière efforts (and in fact, the exotic animals of zoos and circuses were prominent in the early Lumière catalogue). Karim’s zoo excursion footage worked to demonstrate the potential in YouTube as a site where users could share their ever-growing collections of digital video. Initial news reports on YouTube stressed the ability to share personal moments that would otherwise collect digital dust. Similarly, the Lumière brothers’ aim seemed to be more about selling equipment to those wishing to document their own lives. In the case of both media, this early personal application was quickly pre-empted by commercial exploitation.
Each had precedents in terms of other commercial enterprises. Predating motion pictures were the likes of magic lantern shows, vaudeville and the music hall, and other visual entertainment devices such as Thomas Edison’s hand-cranked Kinetoscope and many others. YouTube emerged from a flurry of companies exploring means of online video sharing, including Google, prior to its purchase of YouTube. These new web entities offered free services in place of paid-for sites, or the technically tricky coding involved in posting videos to one’s own website. That the key players in YouTube’s development had previously worked for PayPal indicates that they recognized the economic potential in the nascent Web 2.0, but the manner in which YouTube has transformed so rapidly is more indicative of wider cultural patterns, again similar to those that saw the dominant forms of cinema emerge not long after the Lumières’ actualities.
It’s not as if either medium emerged without commercial precedent, but what is telling is how, after their inception, they so quickly transformed from a means of self-representation to a form of entertainment. Home movies were still made, and individual perspectives have, of course, existed in cinema. Likewise, YouTube is still a repository of many people’s personal digital video moments, along with their artistic efforts of varying merit. However, it’s the entertainment application of each medium that has come to dominate. The promise of a technology that would provide the masses with the means to express themselves was quickly overshadowed by more vested interests. It is in the role of consumer, rather than creator, that most of us find ourselves. As we surf YouTube allegedly seeking out our own interests, we are besieged by pop-up and banner ads tailored to match our viewing histories as we are “data-mined” for information. The myths tied to these various media simply reinforce that status.
This brings us back to what we might want to call the cautionary tale of Justin Bieber. For those of us old enough to remember (that is, most of us), Bieber is far from the first teen idol, and the actions of his followers are merely updated versions of teeny-bopper sagas of the past. Anyone who has seen the wonderful NFB documentary Lonely Boy will recognize in the film’s orgiastic scenes – featuring the screaming fans of teen sensation (and Canadian) Paul Anka, filmed at New Jersey’s Freedomland amusement park – a clear corollary with the stories of rampaging Bieberites at shopping malls. The devotion Anka’s fans show for him is as fulsome as that seen in Bieber’s fans, with their threats against Kim Kardashian for daring to joke that she was in a relationship with the Stratford-born vocalist.
Yet it’s important that each generation, and indeed each individual, imagine that they are unique and that their subjectivity matters. We are a mass to be data-mined, but we cannot be made to feel as such. Myths of stardom are one means of furthering such ideology, while expanding the value of an entity such as cinema or YouTube. For Hollywood, this has involved stories of small-town Americans (and people of other nationalities as well) heading west to partake in the American Dream. Stories of “discoveries” at drugstore soda counters fuelled these Horatio Alger-esque dreams. They helped validate the core concepts of the American Dream while also enriching the value of the movie industry itself.
That music manager Scooter Braun lit upon Justin Bieber’s video, of all 450 million-plus clips on YouTube, is equally evocative. That Braun then encouraged Bieber to continue to upload professionally made but amateur-looking videos reinforces the level of exploitation. There is value in this, both for Bieber and for the medium itself. Not only does such a story reinforce YouTube’s cultural value, it also leads to more content, as other wannabe stars upload their efforts. And the impact of the Bieber effect is notable when an established old-media star such as Ellen DeGeneres is inspired to start up her own music label and sign 12-year-old Greyson Chance based on an uploaded grade-school talent-show performance. More uploads and more publicity means more eyeballs, and more eyeballs means more money to justify the still-developing internet ad industry. It’s not a bad racket, running a media business for which most of your content is provided for free.
In recognizing the similarities between YouTube and cinema, and the continuation of familiar star trajectories, we may be more cognizant of the wider cultural and ideological powers at play. Remove the excitement of witnessing shiny new technologies and the change in media, and we are on very familiar cultural ground. Our desires – for a subjective space, for a cultural voice – are exploited and sold back to us. The “You” in YouTube suggests that this is a place where we, as users, will have some autonomy and control, but the reality is that we are a “You” configured yet again as a consumer, a target market whose subjectivity is defined by the videos we watch, those we befriend, and ultimately, the purchases we make.
For all our love of the new, the core concepts have not really changed all that much. The sharing of the personal has become co-opted as a commercial entity. Stars emerge using whatever technology is relevant at the time. There have been Justin Biebers before, whether they were put out there via newsreel, radio, magazine pin-up, music video station, or YouTube. We get caught up in the differences, the superficial surface elements, while overlooking the substantial similarities and the unending construction of us as consumers that is as much a part of the 21st century as it was of the 20th.