Better than Karaoke
In Routes (1997), his theoretically-inclined book on travel and on the future of anthropology, James Clifford suggests that cyberspace is ripe for fieldwork. The scholar in me agrees wholeheartedly, and suggests, as well, that YouTube and databases such as archive.org, and even The Hype Machine come as close as we’ve ever been to fulfilling the “new grammar” of the web that Steven Johnson suggests in his prescient discussion of hypertext in Interface Culture (1997).
Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century
(Harvard University Press; US: Apr 1997)
It’s not just about empty, non-linear nostalgia. There’s something much deeper happening. What passes initially for “time travel”— in the same way that watching The Breakfast Club (1985) on USA Network on Thanksgiving, or hearing your prom song on the radio 20 years later might—ends up revealing a lot about the workings of memory and our nostalgic drives.
Ultimately, the endless array of mash-ups, videos, film clips, and strangers doing stupid things are important because of what they tell you about you. And because of where they enable you to travel in your own memories. In this regard, the “You” in YouTube is apt.
The YouTube experience, as we move from clip to clip, is revolutionary because it offers us a far more reader-centric approach to narrative than any other textual encounter. In fact, it is larger in scope than any of these science fiction metaphors allow because the stimulation that it provides isn’t ultimately someone else’s, and because we don’t read it empathetically, or engage in any ongoing relationship with plot or character. When we use it, we use it best, to bring us further into ourselves. It’s not ethnography. It’s all about “You”. Even if you never bother to post a clip.
Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate
(HarperCollins; US: Oct 1997)
Navigating YouTube troubles the discrete boundaries of narrative perspective, and is perhaps the greatest fulfillment of the second person that we’ve yet to come up with. Better than karaoke. Better than Robert Montgomery’s experimental film version of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake (1947). Better than P.O.V. video games because the composite narrative is yours, truly, and it’s not ruptured by the fact that you’re self aware and confined to the space of an artificially-bounded world.
It is perhaps the closest thing out there to a plausible Choose Your Own Adventure book for adults that keeps the reader adequately sutured into the text:
To imagine what life was like before you were born, both literally and conceptually, then select “Jefferson Airplane” and “Embryonic Journey” specifically.
To return to the present, leave YouTube entirely and check out Grace Slick’s MySpace page (yes, it exists, but I’m not going to look at it again long enough to link to it for you).