I don’t understand what Web video is. Neither do you, by the way. And if, like Woody Allen, we could pull Marshall McLuhan onto the screen, I think he would dither suavely for quite a while before trying to class it as a hot or cool medium. What we know is that it’s of the moment—not in the sense of its being au courant, but in its knack for turning mere moments into cultural monuments.
You can watch TV programming—a cancelled sitcom or a simulcast basketball game, say—on the Web. But that’s not really watching TV. It’s like watching movies on television or listening to opera on tape. You get the substance of the thing but not its spirit. All of Un chien andalou, the landmark Surrealist short film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, is available on YouTube. So is that movie’s most sensational segment, an 8-second clip involving a straight razor and an eyeball. Only the excerpt jibes with the medium. TV and film translate best to Web video in self-contained blips of primal feeling, and the material most emblematic of the form is smash-and-grab stuff that doesn’t ask you to do interpretive work.
Think of the broadly choreographed dance numbers—rock band OK GO bopping on treadmills, for instance, as well as the countless bedroom lip-syncers. Consider the flavor of the comedy, from the endless Steven Colbert snippets to the whimsical blitz of “Lazy Sunday.” Remember the outraged pops of drama: Zidane’s head butt, Clinton on Fox News. And don’t forget the high-concept mash-ups, the gotcha clips, the nipple slips, the in-your-face homemade monologues, and those miniature documentaries exploring the cuteness of cats somehow never quite so cute as your own. Once you’ve clicked on a video and hunched over to concentrate your attention, the experience comes at you, bold and instant, as immediately intelligible as a billboard and rewarding as a dopamine rush. Your inevitable education in pop culture allows you to fill in any contextual blanks automatically. This is TV reduced to its ether—click, respond, repeat—and every video is, first and last, an advertisement for itself.
This video is viral, all right: It wants to get under your skin. It asks for a gut reaction. Virginia Heffernan, writing the Screens blog at NYTimes.com, supposes that “card-sized video on a computer screen threatens to be dry and abstract, and that anything that makes it visceral redeems it.” I’m fond of Ms. Heffernan and was struck, this past summer, to see her sucked into the orbit of Lonelygirl15, a young woman who presents herself as Bree, an actual 16-year-old with a camera in her actual bedroom, cutely dispensing witty confessions two minutes at a time. About four months passed between Lonelygirl’s June 16 YouTube debut and her identification as a twentysomething actress with ties to that notorious hotbed of grassroots entertainment, the Beverly Hills headquarters of CAA. During that time, Virginia and countless others (including parodists, play-at-home analysts, and sundry cyberspace rangers) went on an exegetical bender—not an unnatural response to a serial display of old-fashioned star quality. Lonelygirl, with her moony eyes and her feline posture and her intimate philosophizing, represents the flip side of Web video’s quick-hit aesthetic—the lingering enigma. (See also: Paris Hilton’s impregnable facade.) Web video rewards obsession and vice versa.
In this and so many other respects, watching YouTube is far closer to consuming Internet pornography than staring at the television. Like Internet porn, Web video promises something to gratify any appetite in an instant and for a moment. The two also share an illicit quality: You generally watch them alone and when you really should be doing something else. Each mixes the raw with the slick. Neither makes a fetish of too much internal narrative.
But then, all of media culture has an increasingly pornographic feel, doesn’t it? Web video dovetails with both the show-me morals of MySpace and the spy-eyed ethos of reality TV and tabloid glossies. YouTube is the product of an America where every normal person knows he deserves to blow up and get paid, to be naked and famous; where you’re not really consuming unless you’re producing in kind and where your “production” can be your own banal self. Web video is the ideal medium for a world populated by instinctual exhibitionists who double as full-time voyeurs. To quote a performance artist who might have thrived on the Web, nothing succeeds like excess.