arts p6 courtesy of kurtis conner

Courtesy of Kurtis Conner

January 20, 2020

YANDAVA | Don’t Discount the Scholars of YouTube

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Critics love to hate. In fact, a lot of people love to hate, which explains the growing popularity of so-called “commentary channels” on YouTube. These channels make videos about weird subcultures, cringe internet content and bad TV shows and movies, often using words like “awful,” “terrible,” “terrifying” and “nightmare” in their titles to describe these media. In the past few years, creators like Danny Gonzalez, Drew Gooden, Kurtis Conner and Tiffany Ferguson have taken off, amassing hundreds of thousands — even millions — of viewers and subscribers by exposing the faults of other creators.

Of course, videos depicting people expressing their opinions on media are nothing new. The Fine Brothers’ React franchise, which consists of several online series showing different demographic groups reacting to internet trends, has attracted millions of views since launching their first series, Kids React, in 2010. Another genre, the video essay, has also blossomed in the past decade. Unlike reaction videos, video essays make use of film and filmmaking techniques to advance arguments about media, sort of like academic criticism for the Web 2.0 era. Popular video essayists — such as Every Frame a Painting, Lindsay Ellis and The Nerdwriter — offer in-depth discussion of culture, much like what I do (or think I do) in this column. However, the genre is not without its criticism. It’s come under fire for spreading misinformation, failing to cite sources and compromising the complexity of their subjects by having to pander to large audiences — all, I think, valid points.

This is why commentary videos seem to straddle an attractive middle ground between the two. In contrast to video essays, they lack the academic voice that might come across as pretentious, instead opting for a more casual tone and inserting memes that appeal to younger audiences. Rather than making use of highly polished production, they simply sit in front of the camera and talk, hearkening back to the old days of YouTube before celebrity and corporate interests took over. In an era where online content creators are increasingly inaccessible (once creators get famous by being relatable, they often become rich and unrecognizable) or untrustworthy (i.e., the Olivia Jade college admissions scandal), the most relatable and trustworthy thing to do might just be to make fun of it all.

In her essay “Can Literary Theory be Participatory?” scholar Priya Joshi characterizes Web 2.0 as having a “participatory culture,” which “creates opportunities for peer-to-peer learning” and “challenges attitudes toward intellectual property.” Commentary channels realize the potential of this participatory culture because they don’t posit their opinions as authority, inviting greater engagement from their viewers and creating a community of mutual exploration. As legitimate criticism, these videos might not always offer the most original or insightful analysis. As content, however, they present a refreshing alternative to the superficiality of social media culture.

Although these videos can sometimes appear overly negative or “hating for hating’s sake,” many of them also bring deeper and more important issues to the forefront. In her series Internet Analysis, Tiffany Ferguson criticizes Facetune and Snapchat filters for perpetuating unhealthy and unrealistic beauty standards, argues for the importance of intersectionality in the environmental activism movement and tears down multi-level marketing companies. Likewise, Kurtis Conner, after denouncing a TikTok couple that pretended to be in an abusive relationship for a “prank,” encouraged his audience to donate to the organization loveisrespect, matching donations up to $10,000.

As we lament the state of our political democracy, such content still gives us reason to put our faith in the internet as being able to fulfill the best of democracy’s potential. “The reader is the author,” Joshi states. The Internet still offers hope that it is not only our culture that can be remixed, reconfigured and reinvented to be better: It is our world at large.

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ryandava@cornellsun.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.