In his TED Talk about procrastination, Tim Urban describes that extraordinary yet quite common experience of opening YouTube to look at videos of physicist Richard Feynman, then hours later winding up deeply engaged by interviews with Justin Bieber’s mother. Urban’s description rings true, though not really for me. I’m not that YouTube audience member, but reading Videocracy almost turned me into one. Reading about Norwegian brothers Vegard and Bard Ylvisaker’s surprisingly viral video for “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)“, I struggle not to put down the book and pick up my laptop to make yet another visit to YouTube. Fair warning to anyone who reads the ebook version of Videocracy. Author Kevin Allocca explains that some of the appeal of “The Fox” is that it is “a ridiculous joke set to a legitimate pop soundtrack that sounds just as catchy as what we hear on the radio.” Much of the book is devoted to Allocca’s pondering and speculation about the mysteries of what goes viral, what is influential, and how we make sense — if we even try — of our experiences with YouTube.
Videocracy could be a groundbreaking cultural analysis, but Allocca takes a different approach. As a YouTube employee of long tenure, Allocca may yet be capable of an unbiased or critical view, but he aspires to neither. Videocracy is a celebration of all things YouTube, replete with backstories about certain videos and what precipitates their rise or fall. The reader is left to their own interpretations of the cultural value of what goes viral.
No one does footnotes like David Foster Wallace did, but Allocca is certainly a contender in the best footnotes category. Jonathan Russell Clark takes up DFW’s footnotes, along with those of Chuck Klosterman, in his 2015 essay “On the Fine Art of the Footnote” at Literary Hub:
Wallace could use a footnote with real pizzazz. Oftentimes, it’s apparent that a given footnote was placed at the bottom of the page not because Wallace desired to employ the technique but because he couldn’t fit the passage into his lengthy narrative. Dude was long-winded. But even in these cases the notes serve something more important than space.
Clark adds that Wallace also used a footnote at times just because he wanted to be funny. Like his predecessor, Allocca’s footnotes serve various purposes. While occasionally offering a simple witty comment: “I think there’s a scientific law that all internet phenomena must at some point intersect with the Star Wars universe,” other footnotes launch an important aside. The assertion that Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls” were likely the first lyric videos, in 2010, Allocca adds the following footnote:
Okay, so you could make the case that technically Bob Dylan introduced the first widely known lyric video forty-five years prior with the iconic short film he created for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — you know, the black-and-white one with him holding the cue cards for the lyrics? The promotional clip originated as the opening of D. A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back and is considered to be the forerunner of the traditional music video.
Noting that Dylan’s careless toss of the cue cards has become a video trope, credit for another take on video lyrics is due to Van Halen’s 1991 video for “Right Now”.
Against the constant distaste for and dismay about social media, Videocracy gives readers a series of anecdotes that connect YouTube to the goodness of being human. Describing his own realization of being a highly emotive person, Allocca recalls videos of soldiers surprising their loved ones when they return home unexpectedly, as well as people with deafness being able to hear for the first time. His tone generously allows readers to admit that while we might not willingly share and repost these videos, many of us are moved to tears nonetheless. YouTube’s ability to bring about catharsis is demonstrated again and again throughout Videocracy. Yet like the videos we watch repeatedly and return to because they enable emotional release, readers are unlikely to tire of Allocca’s examples. Of course it’s not all good, but the focus is certainly on the positive.
For all of the real-life scenarios it provides, can we claim that YouTube is “really real”? Not shy about making big, bold statements, Allocca asserts: “Production value remains important to audiences, but authenticity is king.” The question of defining authenticity, and whether it can be readily imitated with a feigned sincerity, remain unanswered as the project becomes one of tagging an endless list of YouTube personalities as authentic. If, as he claims, there is an “aesthetic honesty that naturally accompanies amateurism,” how should the audience weigh “honesty” on the spectrum of aesthetic quality? Perhaps the pleasure of aesthetic honesty promotes an easily shared engagement, such as the “Nyan Cat” phenomenon in which an animated cat resembling a Pop Tart floats through space, backed up by repetitious Japanese synthpop. That video, and thousands of tributes, variations, and critiques, were watched billions of times as they circulated on YouTube. Participatory media, in instances like this, is a participatory creativity that Videocracy openly celebrates.
While “Nyan Cat” may strike the reader as frivolous, YouTube also enables cultural critique through participatory creativity. On one hand, the opportunity to disseminate an artful rendition of your opinion of a multinational corporation, a misogynistic celebrity, or your rival sports team can be a creative delight, yet on the other hand, any and all media is open to parody and scorn. If you missed a “must see” clip somewhere, you may find a handful of tributes and remixes before you can source the original “authentic” artifact. Allocca doesn’t seem terribly bothered by this adulteration of other people’s creative work, yet the enormous shift in media production brought about via YouTube is both unrelenting and irreversible.
Allocca discusses another irreversible shift in media production in his chapter “The World Is Watching”. That smartphones enable anyone anywhere to record and upload what happens in front of them and to them has transformed our relation to events, how we experience them, and how we remember them. With his long history and familiarity with YouTube, Allocca provides engaging examples to show how everyday people are using technology with aims toward social justice and critical awareness, unfiltered by mainstream media outlets. While many of these stories will be familiar, they provide an important balance to the lighthearted joys of what Allocca calls in his book’s subtitle, “Double Rainbows, Singing Foxes, and Other Trends We Can’t Stop Watching”. YouTube viewers also watch millions of hours of cooking videos, how-to videos, makeup and fashion trend videos, and thousands of “fails”, the painful and awful instances of what Allocca calls “humiliation-based catharsis”.
Videocracy is conversationally written and is an enjoyable read, whether you choose a surface reading or carry Allocca’s speculation to deeper critical analysis. That the book allows both is certainly one of its strengths.