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Понеделник, 21 Март 2011 17:30

The Age of the “Mediums”

Julia Rone

Information from Link to Link, and from Mouth to Mouth

I feel stupid and contagious,
Here we are now: entertain us
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The Bricoleurs

Vbox7, YouTube, Facebook, and even blogs, rarely produce news. As Geert Lovink notes (Lovink, G. 2007), the chances of finding bloggers committed to carrying out independent journalistic research are slim. What online platforms do is emit a thick cloud of impressions around given news and let loose the public opinion. News are extracted from the closed circle of the traditional media and released in the open Internet space. Here, they grow thick with opinions, comments, and interpretations. It is rather telling which news arouses the interest of Internet users. The Facebook cause "Miss Bulgaria 2009 is a crocodile" might turn out to be a lot more exciting for them than the economic crisis. New media are clockwork media. It is never known for certain which news would detonate the public opinion.

The relation traditional – new media may be examined through the strategies – tactics dichotomy offered by Michel de Certeau (Certeau, M. 2002). Newspapers and television constitute the official discourse, the neutral point of view. Internet users creatively consume, use the official messages. In this case these are not necessarily technologies of resistance. Video websites offer a perfect example at hand. There we see the political entering the field of the quotidian, the entertaining, the personal reading. In other words, new media enable us to take the well-known faces out of their institutional context and plug them into self-contrived plots and narrative configurations; to act as bricoleurs at their expense and deal with the available in unexpected ways.

The Agora

New media are not an alternative, even less so an instrument of resistance. They are a talking shop. They are the ultimate manifestation of oral speech becoming ever more so powerful; the revival of folk culture. Even if what’s left of the epistolary genre is still surviving in e-mails, chats, and Skype, the ubiquitous and almighty everyday speech is flourishing in the comments added in video social networks. When engaging in online conversations we try to be as casual and light-minded as possible. We make a theatrical re-enactment of a live conversation that is supposed to look authentic at the most. We add smiles, winks, and cheekies, to each sentence we type down. (Although I seriously suspect that if I wink or stick my tongue out at someone that often in a real conversation, he or she would most certainly think that I’m acting nutty. Not to mention some even more suggestive emoticons such as “puking”, “karate kick” or “punch”). We idealize and over-dramatize conversational speech (Goffman, E. 1959). Paradoxically, some blog posts might be a lot more conversational than a live show aired on the national TV channel, let’s say.

The new media are media of conversation, media that everyone takes part in. In this respect they resemble the public square, the forum, the ancient Greek agora. Huge platforms from which anyone could speak out. But no one is offered the guarantee of being heard. Because everyone is talking at the same time. The two-channel model of message sender and message receiver is no longer valid. Everyone is both a sender and a receiver. Information is transferred from one to the other, from mouth to mouth. Perhaps it is now more relevant to speak of mediums rather than of media. Anyone could become a medium on the Internet – an intermediary in the message transmission without a clear notion of its starting point and final destination. The medium is someone who forwards, someone who becomes the meeting point of competing truths and perspectives. The medium produces information with the very act of his or her intermediation. Only what he or she chooses to re-send, to forward as a link, becomes news. To what extent is the choice of the medium logical, rational, and objective? To the same extent that our everyday conversations are logical, rational, and objective.

Contagious

Ideas are viruses. Information is contagious. This is how one of the biggest global advertising agencies, Publicis Marc, has straightforwardly put it in its current slogan. “Contagious” is the key word which makes marketing experts foretell unprecedented sales figures. Advertising no longer tells us how unique certain product is, nor does it make us identify with it. The good old messages featuring “our detergent” and “the other detergents” are on the verge of extinction. It is no longer relevant to have us identify with the product: “Driving a Renault means that you are a successful man liked by the women”. New ads have nothing to do with the product. The idea is to get the brand name retained in memory. People themselves will repeat the name by word-of-mouth. Here is how it is done – video clips are produced – clips that are provocative enough to become the talk of the town. It does not matter how they are talked about. The important thing is that they are talked about. This approach happened to be extremely successful with the Cadbury chocolate ad. The company released a series of ads in which we see children moving their eyebrows and ears

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVblWq3tDwY

and a sensual gorilla performing a Phil Collins tune on percussions.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnzFRV1LwIo

The ads achieved unconditional success with millions of views in YouTube. There is also a game in which people try to emulate the eyebrow dance known from the ad. We no longer go after our customers with messages they are fed up with. We now let them get the message and distribute it by themselves. Actually, there is no message; or rather the message is a simple one – the name of the brand. The rest is make-believe, nonsense, folly. And that is precisely what makes it so popular.

The kitschier, the more grotesque and the more ridiculous a video clip, the better its chances for success. It is not just about clips being “bad”. No, popular video clips should possess a certain degree of genuine futility and desperate hopelessness about them in order to become truly popular. It was under these conditions that the "Ken Lee" clip attracted over 8 million hits last year.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQt-h753jHI

But there is no universal formula of success. The proof is that the proclaimed as the new “Ken Lee” performance by Mustafa in “Music Idol” 3 came nowhere close to the fame of its predecessor. The unique product (in this case – “Music Idol”) needs to be substituted by a unique clip. Repetition destroys the effect, because the shock should be unseen, unheard of, and incomparable to anything known so far. Video social networks are unpredictable. “Music Idol” is a good example of an attempt to playfully use their potential. The Marin and Mustafa plot is perfect for the video websites: funny clips, less than 5 minutes long, that boost up the rating and advertise the show. The truth is that TV shows are mostly watched in this particular way: in parts uploaded to the Net.

Selected clips

The most watched clips typically attract some tens of thousands of views daily. Internet platforms are strongly interlinked. By the way, this is not something new. It is quite typical for traditional media as well. Morning blocks quote newspaper news. Every TV channel’s mid-day news bulletins refer to news from the morning block. Then the newspapers in turn comment on the TV news and the TV appearances of politicians and journalists. It all goes full circle. In Baudrillard’s terms, a hyperreality is created which does not necessarily need a referent in reality.

There is, however, yet another one, alternative network of platforms making cross-references to each other: YouTube, Facebook, Skype, the blogs. The quote is the main principle underlying these platforms; the copy and paste of links. It goes spontaneously, like an avalanche, following the model of the chain reaction. Interestingly, songs are hardly ever sent over the e-mail. Here we see once again the distinction between written and oral speech mentioned above. The exchange of clips belongs to the genre of conversational speech, of oral communication. It is a ritual of a sort. By sending a clip one could start up or finish a conversation, or simply fill in the silence. To a large extent it is a way of keeping in touch. We maintain the illusion that we haven’t started a conversation with someone just because we wanted to chat him or her up, but because we wanted to send them something we came across in the Net. The concept of meeting someone acquires a new meaning in Internet. What does it mean to meet someone when you are both online all the time? The very act of meeting, the reason for chatting is found in the clips. To write a letter, you obviously have a reason. To chat up someone in Skype, you have to make up the reason yourself. Clips offer an easy and quick solution.

Clips are something more than that, however. In Internet communication they carry meaningful information based on the principle of metonymy. When we are happy, we post a happy song in our Skype status. When we are in love, we post the clip “Love is all around” for instance (with loads of hearts along, of course). Clips carry our identity. Our state of mind is broken down to various clips, songs, aphorisms. If we keep track of someone’s status in Skype or Facebook, we could trace his life over the past year. Certainly, the way he or she wanted us to see it . The Ego is converted into “selected clips”, a collection of fragments sent as links over chat.

Tripping up the political

What are the transformations of the political in the video social networks? The following two clips might give us a good idea of these transformations:

Borisov.jpg    Kostov2.jpg

The first remarkable example is an amateur clip showing a photo of Boyko Borisov (the current prime minister of Bulgaria) lifting weights to the accompaniment of the song “Can’t touch this”. The second clip is taken from “Gospodari na efira” TV show and pictures Ivan Kostov (former prime minister of Bulgaria) tripping up in front of the Presidential Building with the song “Everybody dance now” played in the background. The two clips differ in terms of origin and feature different politicians, but nevertheless use strikingly similar stylistics. An image of a politician, taken out of context, illustrated with a song. All of it in half a minute. This is the ideal political clip. It is short enough so that it wouldn’t become boring and obtrusive. Time is reduced to space, to the spatial dimension of a voiceless image. An image we ourselves have given voice to – just as we want it. The official political message is substituted by a popular song. What could be a better example of creative use of political discourses? As if everything is as it should be, but not quite so. The following clip makes this substitution even more apparent.

kostov.jpg

We hear Ivan Kostov’s voice, his own words, but dj mastered, so that his asking “who” sounds rhythmical and repetitive. His speech at the Friday parliamentary control session turns into a hip-hop song. Politicians are being “tripped up”. Their images slip out of the political setting and out of the institutional framework only to be put in a new unexpected framework. Like fish left in the dry. The only one who feels in his waters under such circumstances is Boyko Borisov, the politician-actor who always performs with the appropriate props and perfectly impersonates every character.

Politics becomes a show, a spectacle. The figural displaces the discursive (Ditchev, I. 2002). The popularity of the politicians is determined not by their political programs but by their TV appearances on the favorite shows of the public. We are witnessing a serious shifting of politics to the field of entertainment. The fact that more people were watching “Music Idol” when at the same time the two leading political powers were engaged in a decisive electoral debate on “Referendum” (a popular political talk show) is rather indicative. Furthermore, each part of the debate uploaded to Vbox7 drew less than a thousand views.

The Bulgarian politician is like an operetta performer: he or she should be able to sing, dance, and act. In this respect Boyko Borisov is a true TV wizard. He appears in episodes of “Zabranena ljubov [Forbidden Love]”, answers questions on “Tova go znae vsjako hlape [Every kid knows it]” and judges singing talent on “Music Idol”. Sergej Stanishev (former prime minister of Bulgaria) and Daniel Vulchev (former education minister) have also made some memorable appearances on “Dancing Stars” and also on “Music Idol”. Politicians gradually assume the role of the “idols” that are expected to entertain the public. In the sweetest dreams of today’s television the elections should be conducted ‘live’ by sending sms’s. This could perhaps improve the voter turnout rate.

Vox populi

The political in Internet is not just about fun and entertainment, however. Vbox7 and YouTube are civic media through which the voice of the people – vox populi – is heard . The key terms when discussing video social networks are direct democracy and active civic participation. Without censorship and coercion anyone could voice his or her opinion. It is not accidental that Barack Obama used YouTube so actively in his political campaign and even launched his own channel in the world’s largest video website. In the first days of the economic crisis the British YouTube featured the economic channel Survival of the Fastest where recommendations for overcoming the crisis were offered in a series of clips. There are also a number of channels run by nongovernmental organizations, charity organizations, etc. In Bulgaria, however, it seems that civil society has not yet reached this level. Certainly, saying that such phenomena are taking place in Great Britain and the United States does not in the least mean that “bad” clips, parodies and the like are not found there either. Still, let’s not forget that aside from the official YouTube channel, one of the most successful clips in support of Barack Obama’s campaign came from a sexy brunette singing I got a crush on Obama in front of the mirror.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKsoXHYICqU

With seven million views attracted in three months, the clip in which an actor imitating Barack Obama sings a Beyoncé song proudly joins the front ranks too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PqI12R8YNU

Such clips are not just an evolutionary stage in the development of video social networks, but their very essence. Nonetheless, the coming forward of the other, the serious clips shows that the Internet agora offers room not only for demagogy, for the whims of the mob, but also for active dialogue and civic participation. Only when someone appears in person in a given clip, not hidden behind photos and collages, and makes public his or her opinion, are we to consider video social networks as platforms for civic action. The other aspect to it will always be there: the amusing, the funny, the parodical, but the power of YouTube is in the free co-existence of both the serious and the entertaining. YouTube is a centaur-like platform. On top of the body of parody and grotesque rises up the figure of civil society.

In Bulgaria, however, the “rising up” and “humanizing” of Vbox7 is not happening yet. To show openly one’s face and speak out one’s opinion is still out of the question. On our video website there are too few videos recorded with one’s personal camera (for economic reasons most probably), whereas on the contrary, there are many photos downloaded from the Internet and video footage taken from traditional media. What dominates in Vbox7 is pastiche, collages, and images hacked from here and there. We see the hypothesis of creative consumption being confirmed in purely technological terms. We see not the active production of news and authored content, but the re-production of information snatched from elsewhere. At the same time, this re-production may be pointing to a serious shifting, “tripping up” of the content.

Thus the video recording of Boyko Borisov’s talk in Chicago, uploaded to the Internet, evoked reactions quite contrary to those we saw in the traditional media. Borisov’s faux pas ironically turned out to be a big plus in Internet. The comments to the clip showed that the online community in fact fully supported Borisov. “Bravo, Boyko” and “Boyko has a point” summarize the variety of the comments. There is a particularly clear divergence of the views of traditional media and new media on the minorities issue. Whereas traditional media talk about “the Roma” and advocate for tolerance and peaceful life together, next to clips such as “MRF converts the gypsies to Islam” we often find comments in the vein of those quoted below:

1 week 1 day ago todor223 wrote:

GYPSIES TO SOAP!

jaltia wrote:

such pests should not be around at all… this hideous gippy lives IN BULGARIA IN BULGARIA but does not speak bulgarian… we have to finish off this scum… for a clean BULGARIA… BULGARIA IS FOR THE BULGARIANS… JALTIA HAS SPOKEN

Furthermore, next to the clip "MRF celebrates with Turkish flags" one reads:

DPSpraznuva.jpg

4 days 14 hrs. ago vizdolrider wrote:

fuck you turkish motherfuckers

1 week 1 day ago berbatov9manu wrote:

fuck off you dirty mongrels

2 weeks 4 days ago flamegor wrote:

UNION IS STRENGTH! THERE WILL BE VENGEANCE!!!

2 weeks 4 days ago flamegor wrote:

Is that why Levski and Botev had died? To have the Turkish flag raised now?

2 weeks 4 days ago mikosot12 wrote:

freedom or death Turks gYpsies Die

The hatred for “the other” becomes more and more widespread throughout society. Most citizens of today’s Bulgaria implicitly approve of nationalism, even if not as radically and hysterically as the members of “Ataka” (right wing nationalist party, currently represented in the parliament). The new media give publicity to the prevailing public attitudes, reflecting them accurately. The written comments make explicit what is implicit: the unwritten consent of society. It is a two-way process, of course: the nationalist clips not only reflect the existing situation but also play a part in it. The logic of the video social networks is the avalanche-like logic of the rumors and gossips, conversational speech, contagious ideas (see the article by Milla Mineva).

To sum up, we could draw a number of conclusions: the model of sender and receiver has become non-operational in the new Internet platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Skype. Every information user becomes a “medium” instead – a receiver and a sender of information all at once. Whereas the traditional media force their choices on us and tell us “this is news”, in the Internet realm news is only what arouses the interest of the people; only what they have filtered out from the information flow and forwarded. The transmission of information depends on the active participation of the users. The significance of a given cause or a given clip is measured by the number of views or hits it attracts. The highest authority is quantity.

The lack of control, the unsanctioned and playful use of the official discourses, the interest in the scandalous, the shocking, the gossip, are among the most characteristic features of the “mediums”. The Gods have been cast down to the ground; the distanced political images have entered the flow of the quotidian. The Internet is the public square entering our homes, the polis invading the oikos, polity taking over economy. New politics is made in the everyday: from mouth to mouth, and from link to link.

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