Websurfing, Digital Shorts and Lateral Drift

by Glenn McDonald

18 March 2008

Premium beer + long winter months + national health care = fertile breeding ground for resourceful science.
Image from Image from The Phoenix.com  

The nature of websurfing has, at its essence, a certain quality of lateral drift that I much enjoy. I might start out the day browsing for old X-Men comics from the 1980s, say. Or checking the baseball scores from spring training. And within a few dozen clicks I find I’m scanning Vancouver real estate ads, in case Dick Cheney decides to dissolve Congress. Or downloading Gaelic instrumental covers of Rush songs. You just never know.

This afternoon I started at one of my favorite mainstream media news destinations, CNN.com, which I like to scan just to see how close our culture is to utter collapse. Some recent, actual headlines from The Most Trusted Name in News (These are the lead news items, right up top—I collect them as a hobby):

• Conjoined ‘bowling ball’ twins divided at last
• Rush hour! Baby can’t wait, born on interstate
• Buster the bus-riding dog
• Elvis-crazy PM hits high notes at Graceland
• Pastor’s wife snapped over money, agent testifies
• Woman faces fine for pink poodle
• State’s top DUI cop charged with driving drunk
• Rob Schneider collapses on movie set
• Freak accident sends Hasselhoff to surgery
• More human heads found in Acapulco
• Man fights alligator to save girlfriend’s dog
• Pink gut beats ‘Big Sexy’ in belly flop contest

I could complain about this all day. Happily, however, a few clicks later I landed at one of my favorite Internet destinations, the blog over at Make magazine. Make does noble work, reporting upon and encouraging do-it-yourself technology projects. The blog is particularly fun. After just a few clicks, I was reading about a homemade lie detector kit, a folding bicycle wheel, an inflatable mouse (the computer kind), and the remarkable specimen of Canadian-flavored DIY insanity that is …. the Redneck Rollercoaster.

Check the link for the fascinating tale of a severely but brilliantly abused 1991 Chevy Cavalier. I have always applauded the pioneering spirit and essential bad-assedness of the Canadian people. Premium beer + long winter months + national health care = fertile breeding ground for resourceful science.

The video made me think of this new cultural artifact we’ve developed over the last decade or so: the viral video. Not so much the news-of-the-weird documentary style seen here, but actual scripted comedy bits sometimes referred to as the digital short.

When it comes to comedy, I’m an old-school sort of fellow. I remember many a Saturday morning watching Abbot and Costello movies as a kid. Now, in our brave new world of the 21st century, I still enjoy Abbot and Costello but have broadened my horizons, as well. Monty Python. SNL. Kids in the Hall. Caddyshack. The Office. Newhart. Chappelle’s Show. Seinfeld. The Simpsons. Fletch. Mitchell and Webb. The entire career output of Ricky Gervais. Tracy Ullman. Tracy Morgan. 30 Rock. I could go on and on, but here’s a riddle: What do all of these comedy classics have in common?

Answer: I experienced them all through the two primary mass entertainment vectors of the 20th century: TV and movies. But that’s all changing. “Digital short” is one of the emerging terms for all those viral videos that have been making their way around the Internet since the introduction of broadband and multimedia. You know what I mean, stuff like the brilliant “Lazy Sunday” from SNL, or the recent contributions from Sarah Silverman and Jimmy Kimmel—short-form comedy bits designed principally for distribution on the Internet.

While many of these may be initially broadcast on television, they really live out their lives online. The vast majority of the intended audience will view the short on their computer monitor, or their iPod, or whatever other multimedia gadget is handy. Check out the ambitious Funny Or Die, a side project of Will Ferrell and writer/director Adam McKay, to see the event horizon of digital short comedy.

I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I suspect that the most successful (read: most viral) digital shorts reach an audience that would dwarf the biggest Nielsen and Hollywood box office figures. Ain’t it cool?

The lateral drift continued, as I wheeled through the Web for much of the afternoon. I spent much of my time, predictably, deep in the archives of a certain specialty video store out of Rio. See, my tastes run to a particularly obscure variety of 16mm Brazilian “art film” that I have to mail order and—actually, never mind. I’ve probably said enough.

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