February 25, 2010
Excerpts from The Future of the Medium Once Known as Television? (Part II)
in Pelle Snikkars and Patrick Vonderau, ed., The YouTube Reader (London: Wallflower Press, 2009): 24-39
By: William Uricchio
But is it television?
At a moment when, in the wake of Janet Jackson’s 2004 ‘wardrobe malfunction’, live television broadcasts have been ended in the United States, when most viewers perceive television as something coming through a cable rather than the ether, and when increasing numbers of people are using DVRs and DVDs to pursue their own viewing habits, the medium’s definition is in a state of contestation. Much as was the case with the discussion of film definition turns on the parameters that we privilege as essential and distinguishing. Television, more than film – which has enjoyed a relatively stable century – has been through a series of definitional crises over its long history. Indeed, how we even date the medium and where we chose to locate its start reveals much about how we have chosen to define it. But there is no escaping the slippery slope on which we tread today.
One of the oldest elements in television’s definition was its potential for liveness. It defined television conceptually in the 19th century, distinguished it from film for much of the 20th, and although it has largely been supplanted by video in order to enhance the medium’s economic efficiencies, liveness (even in the era of the seven second delay) nevertheless remains a much touted capacity. Even slightly delayed, televised sports events, breaking news, and special events attest to the medium’s conceptual distinction from film, which was, for the duration of its photo-chemical history, emphatically not live.
YouTube, like film, misses the capacity of televisual liveness. This is not to say that it doesn’t at times seek to simulate it. For example, as I write this, YouTube has been auditioning interested musicians for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra by having them submit video introductions and performances of a new piece written by Chinese composer Tan Dun. The videos were posted and voted upon over the period of a week, and the winners invited to travel to New York to play at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, complete with a mashup video of the submissions as a backdrop. The selection process played out with a few days of ‘real’ time, and the recursive mashup did its best to keep the time frame tight. While a useful experiment in using YouTube to create a real-life event, televisual liveness was almost never an issue. In fact, if one searches on YouTube for live television, one is prompted with subcategories such as ‘bloopers, mistakes, accidents, gone wrong, and fights’ – indications that liveness is understood by YouTube’s minions as an excess of signification that cannot be cleaned-up, edited away or reshot.
Flow constitutes another key concept in television, first articulated by Raymond Williams in 1974 and reiterated ever since by the medium’s theorists. As with liveness, it can certainly be circumvented through the use of videotape, DVRs and video-on-demand, but by and large it remains present as a potential. Television adheres to the same notions of flow that characterized the earliest days of broadcasting: a temporally sequenced stream of program units constantly issues forth from the programmer, and audiences may dip in and out as they choose. YouTube, like film in the time-based domain – but also like libraries – lacks flow in this sense, offering instead a set of equivalently accessible alternatives at any given moment. Underlying this distinction is a key conceptual difference between television as heterochronic and YouTube as heterotopic. The term heterochronia traditionally refers to certain medical pathologies characterized by irregular or intermittent times (the pulse), or erratic developmental sequence (organ growth). This notion of displacements in time or the vitiating of sequence was picked up by Foucault as something of a temporal extension of his notion of heterotopia. The latter term denotes for Foucault sites with a multiplicity of meanings, defined by uncertainty, paradox, incongruity, and ambivalence; sites best exemplified by long-term accumulation projects such as libraries and museums; sites for which he suggested a temporal corollary: heterochronia. An evocative term as much for its weak definitional status as for its promise, heterochronia is a term I would like to define between its diagnostic roots (the vitiating of sequence, displacements in time) and Foucault’s institutional setting. Like a museum and library, television is a space of accumulated artifacts that are endlessly recombinatory. Unlike them, however, and this is a crucial distinction from Foucault’s meaning, television’s recombinatory process plays out as flow, as a structured linear sequence over time. YouTube’s place in this is somewhat ambivalent.
Like the difference between collage and montage, a similar principle (the compositing of differently sourced artifacts) works to a very different effect along a durational axis. Collage, in which visual elements from various provenances and with different histories are uprooted and combined into a new composition, is certainly a radical recombinatory act. The resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and many collages exploit the dissonance of source, materiality and referenced temporality to great effect. But montage, the durational assemblage of divergent materials, relies upon sequence and ever-changing context for its effect. While it is certainly the case that users of YouTube experience their texts over time, often viewing multiple videos and therefore generating sequential context for individual videos, there is a significant shift in agency (producer controlled flow as distinct from user generated flow), and a shift from flow as default to flow as a condition that requires active selection. In this, YouTube looks very much like the DVR-mediated television experience.
Another recurrent element in the definition of television regards its ability to aggregate dispersed publics. Although this vision can be traced back to the medium’s post-war institutionalization and reflects its inheritance from broadcast radio, it has roots in the late 19th century. In its earliest manifestations, television was imagined as a point-to-point, person-to person-medium akin to the telephone, but bolstered by number of public functions such as news and entertainment. In a certain sense, we have come full circle: from the broadcast era where large publics were the norm, through a period of deregulation at which point cable, satellite and VCR helped audiences to sliver into ever smaller niches. While not yet individualized (our webcams have shouldered that burden), we inhabit a moment where the steady erosion of the mass viewing public has created anxiety in political terms regarding the future of television as a collective mode of address.
YouTube and the emergent practices referred to as IPTV, Internet protocol television, might be seen as the final straw, fragmenting the cable era’s slivers into atomic particles and pushing our expectations and definitional conceits regarding television to the breaking point. YouTube, however, has launched a number of initiatives that seek to restore notions of collectivity. The comments feature enables users to respond to videos and interact with one another by exchanging reactions and links. Videos can be easily shared and recommended to friends, constructing objects of common interest. Interest groups and sub-channels draw together communities of participation and shared enthusiasms. YouTube’s collaborative annotation system enables users to invite people to create speech bubbles, notes and spotlights on their videos, providing a site of interaction and collaboration. And as in the case of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra and New York-based collective Improv Everywhere’s videos such as No Pants Subway Ride and Frozen Grand Central Station, YouTube even serves as a catalyst for gatherings and community activity in the physical world.
Liveness, flow and aggregated publics, while long term concerns and even definitional components of television, have also modulated in response to social needs and available technologies. Over the past 130 years, television has been imagined and deployed as a set of practices that make use of a shifting technological base, including the telephone, radio, film and most recently, the networked computer. Each of these dispositifs brought certain affordances to light, and each inflected these concepts in distinctive ways. YouTube emblematizes a set of inflections and modulations that address the role of the most recent transformation of television’s dispositive – the shift to networked computer technologies. Its notion of liveness is one of simulation and ‘on demand’; its embrace of flow is selective and user-generated; and its sense of community and connection is networked, and drawn together through recommendation, annotation and prompts.
YouTube as next generation Television?
From what we have already seen, YouTube’s focus on the ‘periphery’ of what has long been held as the center of attention – the television show or the film – positions it to play a key role in helping to construct meaning, communities of interest, and the frameworks of evaluation so important to the cultural experience. Especially as our creative economies shift to more user-generated content, destabilizing the long monopoly of media industries as the exclusive producers of texts and authorized conduits of interpretation, YouTube seems to have adroitly taken on the broader space where social meaning and cultural value take form. This choice may well have been inadvertent, since the film and television industries have been reluctant to let go of their products, leaving YouTube hollow where it might otherwise have been filled with traditional texts. The established industries have instead chosen to develop their own online portals. But those portals resemble a robust DVR more than anything else, with archives of program episodes surrounded by strategic appropriations from YouTube. The latter, by contrast, has emerged as a dynamic experimental forum built around shared information – some of it promotional, some of it synoptic texts, some of it fan commentaries, parodies, and mash ups.
To be clear, I do not want to suggest that the text, and particularly the professionally produced media text, is dead. The content industry will certainly continue to survive and change, just as questions about culture and ownership will continue to be asked. Nor do I want to stuff YouTube with all of its radical potential into an old media category. The point is rather that the industrial era of television, with us since the early 1950s, is fast changing under pressure from the disaggregation of content from media platforms characteristic of today’s cross media industries, and as a response to bottom-up appropriations of the affordances of networked computers and various mobile devices. This doesn’t pose a threat to the concept of ‘seeing at a distance’ that has long characterized television, so much as to the institutional logics that have held it in a vice-grip over the past few decades. If anything, the television industry has stuffed itself into an unnecessarily small conceptual space, and YouTube is providing a set of radical alternatives. YouTube has successfully (again, if inadvertently) sidestepped the industrial era artifact of the 30 and 60 minute program format; it offers relatively transparent usage metrics; it provides a mix of voices including corporate, governmental, NGO, and the public; and seems particularly persistent about targeting community engagements. In each case, YouTube is making use of network affordances, unlike its industrial counterparts who are using the network as little more than a data dump and alternate channel.
Initiatives such as YouTube Senator/Representative of the Week, offering officials an opportunity to weigh in on “important issues facing Congress right now,” are designed to elicit debate and participation. So too “one of the coolest, unintended outcomes of the site’s existence”, YouTube EDU providing “campus tours, news about cutting-edge research, and lectures by professors and world-renowned thought leaders … from some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including IIT/IISc, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Yale.” New alliances and natural affiliations are given voice with user channels such as the Survival Of The Fastest, an initiative from the London Business School, The Daily Telegraph and Google, designed to showcase “insights and inspirational ideas from some of the best business brains in the UK.” The Today in History series invites exploration of the archive, contested notions of public memory, and debates over the meaning of the past. In these sectors and many more like them, YouTube can be seen experimenting with existing social processes (education, politics, the construction of history), institutions, and visions, offering new outlets, enhancing its own centrality as an all-purpose portal, and learning as it does so.
William Uricchio is C3 Director and Faculty Investigator, as well as Professor & Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He is also visiting professorship at Stockholm University and the University of Science and Technology in China. His work explores the comparative national constructions of media, trans-national content flows, and the ways that media are drawn upon for identity purposes in European and American cultural settings. His broader research, supported by Guggenheim, Fulbright and Humboldt research awards, considers the 'start-up' phase of media technologies and cultural practices, and their role in (re-) configuring representation, knowledge and publics. His current work takes up these issues by considering collaboration and collective identities in peer-to-peer communities, their relations to cultural citizenship, and their implications for new forms of cultural production. His recent books include Media Cultures (Heidelberg 2006), on responses to media in post 9/11 Germany and the US, and We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities (Chicago 2008). He is completing a manuscript on the concept of the televisual from the 17th century to the present.
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Getting Past Viral: Stop Spreading Viruses & Start Giving Gifts
By: Ivan Askwith
Agencies and clients alike often talk about “viral marketing” as if it’s something we choose to create. We describe viral as if it’s an inherent quality we can design into our campaigns, or a deliberate strategy we can execute on. But for the handful of “viral campaigns” that explode into cultural phenomena each year, hundreds of other efforts have little or no impact at all. In spite of this, we often continue to insist that we know how to “make things viral,” while also reassuring ourselves that some efforts “just catch on better than others.”
Unless we want to spend another year burning time and resources in the pursuit of that belief, it’s time to accept a difficult truth: viral isn’t a quality that we, as marketers, have the power to bestow. In fact, viral isn’t an inherent trait that advertising can have at all. Viral isn’t what a marketing campaign is, but how that campaign spreads. And when a campaign does achieve viral propagation, it’s not simply a function of what we do as designers and planners. Instead, it’s a function of deliberate choices that each consumer makes about what is worth sharing and why.
In that context, "viral" is a problematic way of thinking about marketing. As Henry Jenkins points out, viruses are transmitted whether their hosts wish to share them or not; they can’t be stopped, and the participants are helpless victims. Content, on the other hand, is only shared through intentional decisions. Unless consumers have a strong, personal motivation to share with each other, nothing gets passed along to anyone. If we want people to share things, we need to stop thinking in terms of “viruses” and start thinking in terms of “gifts” — things that people choose to give for specific reasons.
This might seem like simple semantics: when we say we want a viral campaign, we mean that we want marketing that will spread at an exponential rate similar to a virus. But when we insist on describing our work as viral marketing, we make two fatal mistakes: first, we forget that exponential pass-along between consumers is a result, rather than a strategy — the end, rather than the means — and second, we focus on creating better content, rather than better understanding the motives of the people who will choose to share, or not share, that content.
Then, as we begin to plan for 2010, it’s in our best interests to stop thinking about viral marketing, which moves from person to person like a virus, and instead focus on why people choose to share things with each other. We need to understand the spread of media in terms of actively giving gifts, not passively transmitting viruses. And to do that, we need to understand consumer behavior on the consumer’s terms, rather than our own. For now, let’s call this new model “consumer-driven marketing.”
How & Why People Share
Consumer-driven marketing, like traditional word-of-mouth, relies on an exponential growth pattern. Someone encounters a piece of content and chooses to share it with several friends. Each friend, in turn, shares it with several more. From a marketer’s perspective, the critical moment occurs when the consumer chooses whether or not to spread something to others. And unfortunately, since these decisions are expressed through metrics and analytics, both agencies and clients are conditioned to understand this moment in simple “yes-or-no” terms: either the consumer shared something, or they didn’t.
It’s time to move past this oversimplified understanding and accept three important truths: First, people share things for their own reasons, not ours. When consumers tell friends about a brand, they’re not trying to help the brand; they’re trying to help their friends. At the same time, they’re also making a statement about themselves and the recipient: “I want you to understand that I found this interesting, and believe you will too.” When we want consumers to share things, we need to focus on understanding and supporting their motives, rather than pretending consumers can be convinced to do something for our benefit.
Second, when people share, it impacts their reputation and relationships. When we give a gift, it’s because we assume it will have some value and relevance to the recipient. When it doesn’t, we waste the recipient’s time, reveal that we don’t know them well enough to recognize what interests them, and lower the odds that they will be interested in the next thing we share. If we expect consumers to give our marketing content to each other as gifts, we need to make sure it has enough value to reflect well on the consumer who gives it.
Third, when people give gifts, they don’t ask for favors in return. When giving gifts, we can’t also ask for something without undermining the gesture or seeming to be selfish. It makes sense that consumers are reluctant to send overt advertisements to each other, since such ads “want something” from them. In order for our work to spread, we need to focus on giving a lot of value, and asking little in return.
It’s also useful to understand that there are at least three specific scenarios in which people share content, each with distinct purposes, motives and behavior patterns:
1. Contributing (1-to-Many): When users participate in online interest communities, such as message boards or discussion-driven blogs, the act of sharing relevant content is often more casual and less deliberate. Within communities, where members share a common interest but have limited personal knowledge about other members, anything that might be interesting or useful has a good chance of being shared. At the same time, making valuable contributions within a community is an important way for members to “prove” that they belong, and the pride of being the first to discover something of value offers a powerful incentive to share.
2. Broadcasting (1-to-World): In more public spaces, such as Twitter, Facebook status messages and personal blogs, where consumers often speak without having an exact awareness of who they are speaking to, the act of sharing is more self-centric, and more about the person sharing than the person receiving. When a consumer shares something in these broadcast spaces, they generally offer an opinion to contextualize it, so that the act of sharing makes a statement about who they are, what they like, and how they wish to be perceived. In this context, consumers are likely to share anything that expresses their identities, opinions or strengths.
3. Gifting (1-to-1/Few): In more private, focused channels, such as email, IM and offline conversation, the act of sharing is most akin to gifting. Whether a person shares something will depend on how relevant and valuable it is to both the giver and the recipient, since the act of sharing something relevant — much like gossip — is intended to strengthen relationships and reinforce shared values. In this context, consumers are most likely to share anything that helps generate, strengthen or sustain connections.
What This Means for 2010
Rather than spending another misguided year trying to “engineer” viral campaigns that will propagate themselves, regardless of consumer intentions, it’s time to refocus our marketing efforts to align with the way that people actually behave.
It’s time to accept that all of our marketing efforts should start with an understanding of the needs and motives that guide consumer decisions and social behaviors, and not clever creative executions. We need to stop thinking about a mass audience that can be influenced and guided, and start thinking about the individual people we want to engage, as well as the people they want to engage. And we need to understand that effective marketing is no longer about making consumers serve our agenda, but finding meaningful opportunities to serve theirs.
It’s time to focus on creating value that consumers will have a personal stake in sharing with each other. We need to develop content that people will share because it reflects their personal values and sensibilities, helps them recognize others who share those values, and creates opportunities for satisfying interactions. We need to create services and experiences that people will use because they enable useful, meaningful and enjoyable social connections, or help them express their own personalities and identities, rather than making people into unwitting carriers of our taglines and brand propositions. We need to provide creative frameworks that let people express their own values and messages as a way of owning and aligning themselves with our brands. Above all, we need to stop asking people to talk about our brands, and start helping them talk through them.
When our campaigns meet those goals, the outcome will be both logical and inevitable: consumers will share them with each other, and the result will be an exponential increase in both brand engagement and endorsements. But when it happens, it will be because consumers got what they want from us, and not because we got what we wanted from them.
Ivan Askwith is Director of Strategy at Big Spaceship, an award-winning creative agency based in Brooklyn, NY. As the head of the strategic practice, Ivan works to help clients navigate the digital landscape and understand emerging behaviors. Building upon his time as a founding member of MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium, Ivan specializes in generating deep cross-platform audience engagement and helping brands build meaningful, relevant relationships with consumers and fans. Recent projects include work for NBC, Sony Pictures, A&E, HBO, EPIX, Second Life, Skittles & GE. He holds a Master’s degree from MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies, where his work focused on modern television’s increasing emphasis on transmedia narrative in creating and sustaining audience engagement. In addition, Ivan has published chapters on audience behavior and franchise development in several books and encyclopedias. He is a frequent speaker and lecturer on digital strategy, transmedia engagement and online communities at both academic and business conferences, and an occasional contributor to magazines like Slate and Salon.