YouTube: Let’s talk about that — critically

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On the face of it, this is a ludicrous waste of time. YouTube, home to more than 2 billion monthly users and more than 31 million channels uploading more than 500 hours of content a minute, is incomprehensible. Remember when all anyone wanted was a 1,000-channel cable subscription? And that, out of those 1,000, maybe a dozen were decent? Some quick math says that even if just 0.0001% of YouTube channels were good, there would still be more than 3,000 good channels — years of content with unquestionable significance to the world of arts and entertainment. But we don’t know how to talk about it; it’s unconventional in both form and quantity.

Francis Ford Coppola, in “Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” said, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera-corder … and (film) will really become an art form.” Unnecessary “fat” descriptor aside, that is what we have in YouTube: the democratization of film. A cinema in which the only barrier to entry is one’s own ingenuity and an internet connection. It would not be entirely inappropriate to label the proliferation of independently produced content platformed by YouTube as a kind of film movement — perhaps one of the first in decades to come with a radical shift in film form and technique too. YouTube creators have pioneered new languages to express their auteurial ambitions and cultural curiosity.

Casey Neistat — love him or hate him — did just that for the vlog, a YouTube genre where creators capture their navigation of everyday life. His style, messy yet undeniably calculated, has captured viewers’ imaginations for years. His most viewed video, rather obnoxiously entitled “The $21,000 First Class Airplane Seat,” encapsulates the kind of escapism into someone else’s reality that the vlog sells. The video has garnered more than 74 million views since it was uploaded in 2016. The channel Nerdwriter1’s Evan Puschak attributed Neistat’s success to “bringing a decade of videographic experience to a subgenre that prizes amateur craft” — a response to a time when even reality TV isn’t real.

Something very French New Wave happened with that Nerdwriter1 piece. Puschak is part of the video essay subgenre of YouTube — creators who critically analyze their subjects much like regular essayists, but with visuals. In the very same video quoted above, “Casey Neistat: What You Don’t See” (normally stylized in awkward all-caps), Puschak says of Neistat’s style, “along with various other interesting subgenres, like what we’re trying to do with video essays, the daily vlog … has grown organically and uniquely out of the medium where it lives: online video.” 

In the French New Wave film movement, film critics mostly from magazine Cahiers du Cinéma made individualistic and self-referential films with revolutionary techniques born from their exploration of the auteur theory as critics first. Puschak acknowledges his position as both critic and creator participating in a subgenre of online video, developing his own language in the medium while evaluating others’ — just as those French New Wave filmmakers did. And this kind of critical, academic engagement with online video content happens all over YouTube in commentary, video essay and comedy channels. It should not be confined to YouTube.

Criticism has the power to legitimize. To think deeply and share analysis on a work of art or entertainment — good or bad — is to say: “This is worth talking about, this is worth understanding, this is important.” It’s unfortunate that creators usually don’t receive the critical recognition that they deserve until after they leave the YouTube space. Whether that’s Bo Burnham advancing to stand-up comedy and filmmaking to critical acclaim, or Jacob Collier releasing four albums to the tune of four Grammys, or Lilly Singh getting critically maligned over her transition to late night TV, the ingenuity or mediocrity of the online video content that gave them their start — their ventures in a completely separate medium — remain largely unevaluated. Online video remains, as a medium, illegitimate outside of itself. 

However, none of this is to say that these creators need this conversation outside of YouTube for legitimacy — the critical engagement from within that community sustains itself. No, instead people who care about art, entertainment and culture need to be a part of this conversation for themselves. There is an art to making online video content, a language to be explored, a foundation for critical thinking that we should be psyched to get in on. It’s art history in the making. This ludicrous waste of time barely scratches the surface of the revolutionary content happening and being critically examined on YouTube. What can arts and entertainment be? Let’s talk about that.

Contact Lachie Wappet at [email protected].