[Hope is Emo]Aldon of Orient Lodge responded to my last post on authenticity. In his post he problematized my apparent conflation of “professionalism” (or lack there of) with “authenticity” in online spaces like YouTube. Before I get to the crux of the issue, let me begin with the dual “big picture” lessons I took from this:

  1. I really need to be careful with what I write. I realized at the time that my words could be taken that way, but published it anyway.
  2. That said, seeing Aldon’s response really helped me continue to think about how to better frame things. So in that respect, I learned a lot from simply getting this out there. Thus this type of dialog

So returning to the issue at hand, across two posts Aldon raised a number of issues that need to be engaged. First was:

Matthew seems to suggest that the issue is either the roll of professionals in the production, or the use of techniques like having a script, having good filming and having it edited. … What is wrong with having a good script, good camera shots, or good editing? … Politicians are professional speakers. It would be foolish to expect them not to be professional speakers.

There’s definitely nothing wrong with any of that. I didn’t necessarily mean to link “professional” production with lack of authenticity, though that’s definitely the way my words played out. Based on this and prior research, it’s clear that authenticity is a complex, culturally negotiated notion between creator/performer and audience. That negotiation involves all apsects of the experience especially the performance and/or its content and the communications channels that facilitate the interactions.

That gets me back to my concerns about the comparison between Ask a Ninja, Hope is Emo, and Lonelygirl15 and the political videos produced by Edwards, Obama, and Clinton. For me the crux of the issue seems to be a question of audience and intent — entertainment versus political speech.

Let me take this in a different direction for a moment and consider the channel of YouTube. There are a number of ways of looking at it. For the moment let me break it up into the following “use” categories:

  1. YouTube as a distribution tool. Put a video up on it and it can be easily aggregated across the internet. The actual interplay and response on YouTube isn’t of particular concern.
  2. YouTube as an entertainment hub. When we look at traffic alone, this is by far the primary application. Much of the content has been pirated from traditional media outlets (note the Viacom crackdown as of late). Other pieces, like Ask a Ninja, Hope is Emo, and Lonelygirl15 are produced by a mix of amateur and professional creators.
  3. YouTube as an interdiscursive community of Video Bloggers. These videos are a mix of self confession, commentary, debate and pundit-ism. While individual entries don’t typically get the traffic of the entertainment content, these v-Bloggers consider themselves to be the “true” backbone of YouTube (see my prior posts on this). Here especially, authenticity is critical (again see the prior posts).

Problems in authenticity arise when these boundaries begin to blur, especially between categories two and three. The controversy over Lonelygirl15 is an example. Its creators seemingly mastered the “language” (or at least a folk-formula) of the v-Blogger community. And that tension over “is she or isn’t she ‘real’ (or rather authentic)” played out for quite a while before the cat was let out of the bag. The results within much of the community was a feeling of betrayal, which would resurface in different forms in the LiveVideo discussions.

In much the same way, based on the comments the videos receive, there are a number of YouTube posters who don’t realize that Hope is Emo is actually actress Crista Flanagan parodying emo culture. Hope’s producers have stated that they “made an effort to let people who cared know it was a show.” Note that responsibility was up the the viewer – “We still get lots of emails asking if [Hope] real. Which is cool, but if those folks really cared they could find out in a click or two.” I’ll stay away from PT Barnum discussions about fooling folks. What is clear is that the producers of Hope, like Lonelygirl, choose not to include “signs” within the video posts to clearly differentiate them as entertainment.[1]

What’s the issue here? A variety of politicos have identified the internet as the new method to get to “the people” (a category worth unpacking at a different time). The question then becomes where to make their stump. For those that choose YouTube, we move onto “how should they address audiences?” And that’s the moment where all of these questions of authenticity and production come to bare.

I think there is another vector in there as well — the question of interaction. What does it mean to encounter “the people” and what is expected of a politician in doing so. Based on feedback from a survey of both Right and Left wing radio, there’s a general frustration with the “packaging of candidates.” Pundits on both sides lament how performance is linked to polling and media consultants versus the idea of seeing politicians engage in “meaningful dialog.”

That’s why, based on the time I’m spending watching the YouTube community, I wonder if working with someone like Beatbox Giant Productions (creators of Ninja and Hope) is a step in the wrong direction for politicians. It seems to me that would represent a move towards “how can we package X for YouTube?” and “what is the formula for winning the online vote.” Likewise, it seems a step away from some form of transparency, and a step towards an old media approach to new media.

The differentation of Old and New Media is what Aldon then went on to contemplate in his post:

One of the essential characteristics of new media, to me, is the ability for anyone to do it…

In his second posting Aldon explored this idea of empowerment:

Perhaps the old media gatekeepers are not disappearing. Perhaps they are being replaced by a different type of gatekeepers. After all, YouTube and the other videosharing services have their own gatekeeping rules about what can go on the site, how it can be shared, how it makes it to the front page, etc. Social networks serve as another part of the gatekeeping mechanism as popular and well liked videos rise to the top.

Are popularity and user ratings better gatekeepers than the producers, editors, and anchors in the traditional media? The fiercely democratic, as well as those interested in ideas like emergence and collective intelligence are likely to think so.

There are a couple notions bound up in there. In particular the often cited “anyone can do [insert social computing application here]” and the “end of gatekeepers.” In respect to the prior, provided someone has access to the necessary equipment, skills and time, the basics of the statement is true. However, just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they can do it well.

Which leads to Aldon’s posting about gatekeepers. I’m of the school of thought that the visible, old media gatekeepers of today are being replaced online by transparent gatekeepers, some of which Aldon aludes to above. And at least for the moment the net effect of this transition seems to be, well, not much of a change in the status quo. Again looking at Ninja and Hope as success stories, these were products of people in the entertainment business — bringing established old media tricks to a new media world.

Serendipitously, Grant McCracken chose to write on a similar subject at This Blog Sits At. In his examination of consumer created superbowl advertisements, I think he did a wonderful job at bringing us back down to reality regarding “online/consumer empowerment.” His concludes his look at consumer enfranchisement by stating:

[C]onsumers won’t be welcome to create content unless they have most, if not all of the properties of existing marketers. Rank amateurs need not apply. Even those consumers who are “pretty gifted” will not be included. The Doritos Super bowl experiment told us, I think, that pretty good is not nearly good enough.

Maybe I’m feeling extra cynical this morning, but I tend to believe the same is true for the “entertainment” space on YouTube (note the differentiation from the community space). I don’t see YouTube (or the elimination of previous gatekeepers) as changing the face of popular entertainment. Online and off that will, by and large, remain dominated by professionals. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But in the act of building the online public sphere, I’m just not sure if those professionals are the right people to turn to for getting out a political message. Or perhaps they are right to get out an effective, packaged message, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for creating a new form of political speech or a radically different channel for it.


Hynes, A. (2007) What is authenticity in this digital space?

Hynes, A. (2007) Social Network Media Gatekeeping

McCracken, G. What did we learn from the Doritos Super Bowl experiment?

[1] – I want to note that part of the confusion is that much of the visual language of entertainment media (opening sequences in particular) have been coopted by v-Bloggers. So, for example, the presence of a title sequence isn’t, by itself, a designator anymore.