For those who don't know, 1) Though I think I have 2 people who actually read this, I write as if the entire world is on the other end of this blog, and 2) I'm finishing my first semester back in school as a freshman (surprised that's not freshperson yet.) The following is an essay from my English Composition class.
Every second millions of people communicate with each other across the globe, using an ever-growing array of technologies that constantly evolve. Differences that have divided peoples for millennia could erode as the promise of global communications allows us to see each other for who we really are. But are we living up to that promise? Becky Roth, a student at Kansas State University, sows the seeds of doubt in, "Authenticity on YouTube", part of that school’s digital ethnography project. Weaving commentary and source footage from YouTube, a website of user-generated video content, she calls into question our assumptions about how we use technology.
The reality of global communications is that platforms, such as YouTube, provide us with the ability to shape who we wish to present to the world at large. We become producers of our own image, and carefully manipulate our own identity. We live entire lives online, separate from who we really are, blurring the distinction between entertainment and reality. Far from bringing the world together, YouTube creates a world of self-engineered celebrity and questionable authenticity, raising new barriers between people by casting doubt on identity.
LonelyGirl15, a home-schooled teenager with strict parents, was a phenomenon. Her story is the narrative thread in "Authenticity on YouTube", presented in a montage of video clips of her video log, other YouTube subscribers’ reactions to her, and news clips from mainstream media. At the height of her fame, she had over two million subscribers who followed her video log, until someone called into question her authenticity. Controversy erupted when it was discovered that she indeed was an actress, presenting a storyline crafted by three would-be screenwriters from New Zealand. Anger ensued and debate raged, portrayed in the latter "half" of the video as millions of YouTube viewers and posters struggled to define their expectations of honesty within a virtual community, wherein identity is infinitely malleable. Amidst this storyline, Becky Roth, via ghostly white text, suggests provocative questions on the nature of reality in a virtual world: Your "identity" and your real identity; which is the real you?
In the latter half of the video, respondents to the revelation of LonelyyGirl15 as a fabricated identity faction among "purists", who claim YouTube as a forum for "real" people, and the "creators", people who use YouTube as a vehicle for self-expression. It is in this portion of the video that masks become a prevalent motif. Some of the clips use literal masks, yet some simply shroud faces in black. One poignant example is that of an old man who takes on the persona of an old, opinionated man, with hat and glasses and a stereotypical speech pattern seen throughout Hollywood of the grumpy, opinionated old geezer. Moments later we see the creator of this character, a clean-cut, well groomed and articulate older American, who claims his character is "…just as much a part of me as I am." While asking mainly questions of us, Becky Roth at this point did venture an opinion: Creativity does not always replace reality. Indeed.
As many questions as are asked in the video, it suggested to me so many questions that were not asked, regarding how we perceive and present ourselves. Becky Roth’s questioning account of identity within the world of YouTube stunned me into looking hard at technology; how we use it, and how we interact with each other.
YouTube is a global video communications platform that invites us to create and share self-produced videos, and provides a comment forum for those who view them. YouTube is the logical result of a long evolution of technological innovation in how we, as people, connect with each other. Cell phones, many with cameras, text messaging, and internet access, allow us to carry on a two-way dialogue with the rest of the world no matter where we are. The internet provides email, chat rooms, discussion boards, and instant messaging with an unlimited number of people, allowing anyone on the planet with a computer and ever-growing internet access to communicate. Social networking used to be a matter of meeting people face-to-face. Now Facebook and MySpace are the paradigms for connecting with other people, who peruse our posted profiles like we flip through magazines at the dentist’s office. We keep innovating ways to communicate with each other and new ways to identify ourselves. It’s a natural, if not inevitable, progression to globalize face-to-face communication via the fusion of Internet and video.
What struck me is how we use YouTube to present our identity to the world. For nearly a century, we have used cinema and television to hold a mirror up to ourselves, portraying ourselves as we think we are, and as we think we should be: heroic, smart, beautiful, savvy, cool. We consume what we wish to be recreationally, and I think this has distorted what we assume to be reality. Have we turned every aspect of our lives into entertainment; scripting, rehearsing and editing "reality" in take after take? It’s said that art imitates life, but what happens when life imitates art? What happens in a culture obsessed with celebrity when the consumer becomes the producer? Enter, YouTube, a virtual community of people and ideas self-produced, polished, packaged and posted.
It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. On YouTube, that’s not true anymore. YouTube, a product of ever-cheapening and available video production and editing technology, allows anyone with software and a camera to rehearse themselves, and edit the lives they wish others to see countless times until who you wish to be becomes who you are. YouTube doesn’t just allow you to hide your warts but become someone who doesn’t even have them. In this environment, I believe the people who stake out YouTube for "real" people and not "fakers" are being unrealistic, if not naïve. Is there any difference between a scriptwriter penning your lines and you rehearsing your first YouTube video a hundred times before posting? Is trying to be as "real" as possible itself a form of production? Becky doesn’t answer these questions, but leaves us to think on them.
Beck Roth’s ethnography video on authenticity in the world of YouTube presents both thought provoking questions and implications. Using the narrative of an engaging girl’s story that proved to be manufactured, she calls upon us to call into question our own assumptions about ourselves and each other when communicating through electronic media, but most specifically, YouTube. What you perceive as reality is up to you, but assuming that sincerity is the rule in a virtual world of endless second chances, is naïve to say the least. YouTube shows that the technologies we embrace as mediums for honest cultural exchange are in fact a barrier to intimacy and the consequences an undiscovered country of more questions than answers.