VINTAGE article from 2007. The Gift of Hindsight 2010

I WROTE THIS  WHEN I WAS SEVENTEEN ABOUT THE PUBLICITY APPROACHES WE COULD EXPECT IN A 24-HOUR NEWS CULTURE & ‘YOUTUBE DEMOCRACY’,  AND DISCUSS THE IDEA OF ‘MEDIA TRANSPORT’…

With the gift of hindsight, can we make the claim that political candidates on both side of the pond can expect greater success if their social-networking presence is the strongest out of the competition?

POLITICS AND MEDIA IN A YOUTUBE

“WATCH OUT BBC, ITV…we’re coming after you!”

cameronWill David Cameron’s casually stated (or, to make an oppositional reading, scripted) order of precedence – the broadcast institutions first, the “vlogs” afterwards – remain the status quo in 21st century politics?

YouTube, a free video website, began in February 2005. A few clips of exploding Diet Coke bottles later, the site underwent a meteoric rise to fame globally, and a defiant increase in unique hits (currently claimed to be 20,000,000 a month) soon challenged the oligopoly’s grip on entertainment, influence and Old Media copyrights. Then came Webcameron’s launch a year later in September 2006. It marked the beginnings of a new age in the relationship between politics and the media: no gatekeeper (unless YouTube’s new owners, Google decide to create one), an escape from the Paxmanesque rigours of critical analysis in broadcast news media, and the potential to reach a youth market considered more likely to tune in to Gordon Ramsay, than register to vote.

Politicians can now look directly at the camera, not at Andrew Marr, and just tell it how they want to. Unless they’re Tony Blair making a nervous, “fresh, first hand” vlog debut. Eyes engaged or not – could YouTube deprive us of intellectual debate?

Actually…
No. The hypodermic model is a bit wrinkly now. Like Gramsci said, we are autonomous individuals, and to assume that hegemony exists without a struggle, is a bit silly. Well, he didn’t use the word silly. The simple prefix of RE: to a new clip challenges the perception of a passive audience – we’re not just taking it, we’re digesting it and spitting bits of it back up again. A new hegemony is being battled for on our computer screens every minute of our lives. YouTube is no deceptive name then. In a dangerously unqualified attempt to coin a new term, I reckon it could be seen as a form of, here goes, Media Transport.
I’ll explain. Convergence, plus a sort of globalisation, (only that the information feed isn’t one way, it’s reciprocal;) equals a big communal network where active, labouring audience members can access each other, visually constructing and deconstructing opinions. YouTube, it can be said, serves as a democratising medium. From a Marxist perspective, it could be said that some of the production powers have been taken back from the larger institutions. Video clips are an example of how “labourers”, or active audience members, are no longer isolated from their own creations. Hopefully some Pinky research grad and a Brain professor will make better use of my quasi-academia, but you get the picture. The clip. The vlog…
However, is this all too idealistic? Is YouTube really a force for democracy, when you have big politicians swinging their PR swords at each other for the best see-you-at-the-pub persona? The play’s the thing when MPs are actors too.

Freedom of your own creation
It is an attractive prospect for any politician. They can shape their image and message freely. The connotations on the other hand… (Yes, that’s you I’m talking to, kitchen-sink-and-baby misé-en-scene David Cameron) are they wise to use this wonder of “Web 2.0″ as a promotion tool? Or will the politician only look like a tool? In the eyes of what is rapidly becoming a new-media literate audience, probably the latter. Preferred readings only seem to occur on YouTube when watching authentic, ‘handmade’ home movies, and small director movies offer an art form away from the conglomerates. YouTube, then, is an internet portal into the privacy of everyone’s embarrassing lives, lively opinions and individual art. Therefore, negotiated and oppositional readings are more likely to occur when the public arena of politics is reconstructed into such an intimate format. A simple way to put this would be…posing. Identifying a ‘poseur’ (MySpace lingo alert) is made easier in the case of Webcameron, because of the purple, gender-neutral speech bubble that pretty much trademarks each clip. “Hmmmmm,” says the prospective voter, “it looks suspiciously like branding you’d get in an advert.”

Uh oh, politics as a commodity, politics posturing as a home video – “must be propaganda.”

Selling yourself was certainly very popular for politicians in the twentieth century, but when everybody is at it, the unique selling point disappears. And it is undeniable that the recent YouTube onslaught by politicians an attempt to lure young, short-attention spanned people like me. In the UK and the US particularly, a majority of the YouTube audience will be the freshest crop of voters for 2008. Ah, the political internet-makes-the-video-star pandering isn’t so innocent after all.

A Revolution?

Media Guardian legend Jeff Jarvis made it clear that “You(th)Tube” will help to create an electorate revolution. “A message that clicks can be made for nothing and seen by the nation.” So much so, he should probably watch out for his job given the amount of bedroom videojournalists, such as James Koteckie, making their humble debut there. YouTube has provided a platform for all views to be heard. It complies with the reality television genre; only the Chantelle-style success is just a camcorder or mobile phone away.

memtv1This grassroots approach could be seen as more appealing to an audience, which is accustomed to an elite of news programme presenters. Dr Graham Meikle of the University of Sydney gives this grassroots approach a fitting term: “participatory culture”. He offers the optimistic opinion that such a culture could prefigure similar conduct in politics.

Certainly, the violent and riotous atmosphere surrounding the hanging of Saddam Hussein was only exposed by a crudely filmed YouTube video. It was almost in complete contrast to the rather formal, controlled execution depicted by the edited footage from news corporations. Even though these images were subsequently scrutinised by the press, the new “participatory culture” had evidently won the battle of hearts and minds.
Yet, does this not suggest that a new class system is emerging, where social groups who have easy access to production tools are the only ones who will be able to join in the hegemonic struggle? Alessandro Aurigi and Stephen Graham first suggested this model of a cyber-literate ruling class, a cyber-competent consuming class and a “digital underclass”.
But still, how can we predict that YouTube is even going to be effective as a catalysing voting?

YouTube versus TV
YouTube could certainly be defined as a multichannel broadcaster. But can we even compare video blogging to the political party television broadcasts we are accustomed to?
The success of Webcameron’s launch was largely dependent on it being publicised on television news – almost directly dependent on news values. Good ol’ Galtung and Ruge to the rescue then. In 2007, the current count of Webcameron clips touches the 70 mark. In the U.S, as the presidential campaigns began to heat up at the dawn of a new financial year, YouTube launched their own political vlog, “Citizen Tube”. It could very well be mark the beginnings of its institutionalisation. Even Murdoch’s MySpace splashed out by launching “The Impact Channel” in order to amass ad revenues from ratings. The old amphitheatre of crowd-pleasing, populist promotion has not changed and never will. Only the technology and the state of political interaction will change. NewsCorp are probably as ready with editorial guidelines as Woolworths were with that minging Kate Middleton and Prince William crockery.
So is the political YouTube culture a passing fad? When broadcasts become as prolific as a press release, their predictability could suggest PR burnout in years to come. Unless, of course, there is the value of negativity, such as coverage of “hoodies”, marginalized as un-hugged juvenile delinquents.

But then, news values just aren’t neutral. Take the infamous “Hillary 1984″ spoof of Hilary Clinton. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a watershed moment in 21st century media and political advertising”. Yet the massive US news corporations didn’t notice for about two weeks, according to CNNmoney.com. Why so long to define a threshold when Hillary Clinton is an elite person? Because this particular viral clip had to become an epidemic first. Here is where YouTube’s advantage of being instantaneous ensures its success – it’s contagious and it’s perceived as most up to date. This could have more political sway than broadcast media in the future. YouTube lacks the mediation and authorisation processes within our current multi-channel, 24-hour news culture. Truth is, we will not know of YouTube’s clout for sure until the votes are counted.obama-hillary

Conclusion
So for now, it’s just YouTube, not some advertising tunnel of doom. The distributor/portal/channel/broadcaster is the home of technologically mobile people entertaining each other, from a distance, and for free. The music videos snatched from Viacom’s MTV, clips snatched from many other channels, trailers, films…it’s a minefield for potential lawsuits. I’ll conclude with the consensus view, which is that legislation is the only power left that could destroy YouTube and “participatory culture.” Although it might save itself. But that’s only if the highest number of viewings, ratings and advertised pro-YouTube policies correspond with the agendas of the next governing bodies.

//Published April 2007 in MediaMagazine under Jane ‘Moose’ McConnell.

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