The Unbearable Lightness of YouTubing

Google buys YouTube. This was an opportunity for Adam Hanft over at Marketplace to think about the question: just why are these open-posting video sites so popular? For viewers they’re popular because (if) there are enough interesting videos to watch to make it worth a waste of some time. But what’s in it for the people uploading the videos? Adam’s answer is interesting.

In a curious inversion of Marxism, the millions of people who upload videos to YouTube haven’t thrown off their chains, they’ve embraced them.

People are positively jubilant about spending time and effort to create videos or discover them, and then post them for free.

But why? There’s no economic benefit to them. And that defies classic economic theory that says we are all rational beings and act only in our own self-interest.

YouTubers do what they do because it’s a form of uncensored self-expression. They circulate elements of themselves, put those personal fragments out into the world, and that exhibitionism becomes a signifier of their very being.

In short, YouTube-ing serves a powerful need.

Putting up a video of their cat swimming is clearly not in the economic self-interest of the person who does it. But it’s clearly in their emotional self-interest.

I think he’s pretty much right, so far. Like he says, there’s no rational economic (what he really means is “monetary”) benefit to posting a video of yourself picking your nose, but people must get some kind of kick out of it or they’d be unlikely to bother doing it. But then he goes on to wax philosophic about the sociology of the situation, and here I think he reaches too far.

Those who argued that the Internet is an isolating phenomenon completely misread the latent powers of connection it represents.

You see, those who upload videos are offering a part of themselves to the world. And they’re “selling” their self-identity by doing so…. So the genius of YouTube was that it recognized the hunger to be visible, the stem-cell of all this user-generated content.

He seems to think that all those lonely people are solving their anomie, their post-modern, post-industrial, post-nuclear family, end-of-history existential loneliness by connecting with strangers near and far through the videonet. If people see you picking your nose, and you see videos of them eating a Twix, then somehow you are a little more connected to the world, a little less lonely.

Yeah… I don’t think so. The thrill of it all, the newness of it all probably works for some people, but there’s no way that being an exhibitionist is going to solve problems of loneliness for very many folks. (It’s worth noting that probably most of those posting videos to YouTube are not doing it out of some sort of unconscious loneliness thing.)

First of all, this idea suggests something pretty sad about our culture, if Hanft if right. It means that the only way people can feel like they matter, like they exist, is if they are known by millions of strangers. Having family and friends and neighbors isn’t enough; it’s either be a movie star or disappear. That’s pretty stark. I sure hope he’s wrong about that. But even if he’s right, there’s no way that posting your little videos to YouTube will give you the existence you might be craving. It might seem so for a while, as long as the newness factor hasn’t worn off. But pretty soon it’ll be old hat. Your uncle will have posted videos, your mom, your math teacher–everyone who is and isn’t cool. And on top of that, you’ll start realizing that, well, even after they’ve seen your movie, none of those strangers staring at their screens knows anything meaningful about you. They’re not your friends and they won’t be there to say, “you matter,” when you are feeling down in the dumps. If people have a problem with social connections, if they’re having an existential crisis, YouTube and it’s clones ain’t gonna do them no good. Frankly, when it comes to existential crises, I think I’m with the luddites. Them and Victor Frankl.