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«TDR: The Drama Review, Volume 53, Number 3, Fall 2009 (T 203), pp. 67-83 (Article) Published by The MIT Press For additional information about this ...»

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Out of Hand: YouTube Amateurs and Professionals

Nick Salvato

TDR: The Drama Review, Volume 53, Number 3, Fall 2009 (T

203), pp. 67-83 (Article)

Published by The MIT Press

For additional information about this article


Access Provided by Georgia Institute of Technology at 04/24/11 10:11AM GMT

Out of Hand

YouTube Amateurs and Professionals

Nick Salvato

Relative Differences

The video-sharing website YouTube has been dewily hailed by its admirers (and strenuously promoted by its marketing team) for democratizing the circulation of moving images. As one Nick Salvato is Assistant Professor of eatre and a member of the graduate faculty of English at Cornell University. He has published articles in Camera Obscura, Modern Drama, and eatre Journal. His book, Uncloseting Drama: American Modernism and Queer Performance, will be published by Yale University Press in 2010, as part of the series Yale Studies in English.

TDR: The Drama Review 53:3 (T203) Fall 2009. ©2009 67 New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology blogger and self-identified filmmaker attests in the title of his post, “The Democratization of Media” is “why [he] love[s] youtube [sic]” (Shea 2008); and as YouTube’s product manager has proudly declared in a press release, “One of the greatest aspects of YouTube is how it has democratized the way in which videos are discovered and promoted. […] On any given day, a video from a top-tier content creator or an ordinary YouTube user can become the next big thing” (YouTube 2008a). But it is exactly this potential of YouTube (as a synecdoche for Web 2.0 technology more generally) to reshape the dissemination of images that has rallied its detractors, too—and with equal intensity. For example, in the polemic The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Silicon Valley entrepreneur-cum-pundit Andrew Keen describes a moment of literal queasiness at a 2004 business retreat sponsored by O’Reilly Media (nicknamed “FOO Camp,” for “friends of O’Reilly”), where “democratization” was the buzz word animating

all conversation:

There was one word on every FOO Camper’s lips in September 2004. That word was “democratization.” […] Media, information, knowledge, content, audience, author—all were going to be democratized by Web 2.0. The Internet would democratize Big Media, Big Business, Big Government. It would

–  –  –

As this passage and the title of the book itself make clear, Keen’s distaste for the prospect of democratized media hinges on his distinction between professionally produced creative content and its amateur equivalents (and, of course, the potential for the success of noncommercial production to erode the profits of the corporations in which he has invested). As Keen develops this distinction between amateur and professional, he equates the amateur, not surprisingly, with “mediocrity” (3), “inanity and absurdity” (5).

The criticisms of Web 2.0 that Keen advances can be all too temptingly turned against him.

He laments, for instance, that the internet has “undermined our sense of what is true and what is false,” but his own unquestioning reverence for “facts” is undermined, in turn, by his willful manipulation of information about such internet icons as Wikipedia and YouTube (3). He decries the former for “perpetuating [a] cycle of misinformation and ignorance” (4), even though he misinforms his readers by failing to note that entries on the site are often vetted and include citations (or warnings for the entries that do not include citations); and he indicts the latter for “prosaic and narcissistic” content (5), even as he ignores many videos that would challenge this description. He opens himself to the same indictment by rehearsing, unimaginatively, a list of YouTube videos that renders his own account flat, and by proceeding to tell a personal narrative about his internet work that reveals his own considerable self-involvement (11–15). Ironically, Keen betrays his own “amateurism” as a writer incapable of constructing a persuasive and welldefended argument, and this irony is thickest when he attacks Wikipedia’s entry for amateur because it is not unilaterally negative, but allows for the complexity that might be associated— indeed, has been associated—with the word (39).

Keen’s “amateurism,” as I identify it here, belongs in scare quotes because I read against the grain of his prose precisely in order to interrogate his reductive opposition of the amateur to the professional. Indeed, his binary thinking might be productively submitted to the deconstruction performed by Marjorie Garber in Academic Instincts (2001), where she demonstrates convincingly Nick Salvato Figure 1. (previous page) Top: Chris Crocker in the YouTube video “Leave Britney Alone!” (10 September 2007). Bottom: Seth Green parodies Crocker in the E! Entertainment Television video, also posted to YouTube, “Leave Chris Crocker Alone!” (14 September 2007). (Screen captures courtesy of Nick Salvato) 68 the ways in which the terms amateur and professional “produce […] and define each other by mutual affinities and exclusions” at the same time that they disavow—and acquire power as categories by disavowing—“the close affinity between them” (5). But Keen is an easy target, and he is worth citing less because he is subject to such a critique than because he brings into bold, even hyperbolic, relief the assumptions that color the thinking of much more subtle and responsible writers who take up the terms “amateur” and “professional.” To delimit scrutiny to those of us who engage with the subjects of theatre and performance, even a cursory glance at recent issues of our journals reveals that when we use the qualifiers “amateur” and “professional” to describe both contemporary and historical performance, we use them as though their meanings were transparent. I would submit that, in so doing, many of us repeat implicitly, and without sufficient critical distance, the premises of the American commercial theatre, where “professional” means, quite simply, theatre in which actors are paid for their work; where all Equity theatre is “professional,” but not all “professional theatre” is Equity (as in the cases of non-Equity touring companies that also pay actors, or the renowned Wooster Group); and where “professional theatres” negotiate with the Actors’ Equity Association to determine how many non-Equity actors’ contracts they will allow for particular shows.

The moment we begin to examine activity that happens outside this narrowly circumscribed field, we see how inadequately the economic distinction between amateur and professional fits other modes and models of performance. As Ruth Finnegan observes in The Hidden Musicians (1989), a study of local music-making in the English town Milton Keynes, “neither payment nor amount of time provides,” in the cases under consideration, “an unambiguous basis for differentiating ‘professionals’ from ‘amateurs’; the difference is at best only a relative one” (14).

Importantly, that relative difference is also an affectively and politically loaded one:

The label “professional” is used […] as an apparently objective, but in practice tendentious, description to suggest social status and local affiliation rather than just financial, or even purely musical, evaluation. […] Thus the emotional claim—or accusation—of being either “amateur” or “professional” can become a political statement rather than an indicator of economic status. (16) Whether in Milton Keynes, in Silicon Valley, or at any number of other sites, such densely connotative rather than strictly denotative meanings of “amateur” and “professional” cannot be escaped; and while, as Garber notes, the connotations are contingent in such a way that one term is not always conceived as the dominant or superior one (2001:5), the overwhelming tendency in the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st has been to privilege the professional, especially in the evaluation of performance practices. In myriad cases, the designation “professional” has operated as an exclusionary principle and tactic that aims to delegitimate certain performance idioms along the lines of race, class, and gender, among others. (Why is the event that launched the careers of Billie Holiday and James Brown called “Amateur Night at the Apollo”? What does it mean to assess the achievements of various Chicano teatros on the basis of a “professional standard,” as does even such a sensitive and progressive chronicler as Jorge Huerta [2000:7]?) This privileging of the professional over and against the amateur is, significantly, a tendency to which YouTube is by no means immune, despite its nomination as a democratizing influence by supporters and detractors alike. Indeed, the users whom YouTube invites to “broadcast [themselves]” regularly and consistently affirm the professional, produced and defined in tandem with and at the ultimate expense of the amateur; and the potent and credible alibi of democratization is precisely what allows such an affirmation. One index of this phenomenon is the extent to which performers with commercial ambitions—and, at times, corporate sponsorship—will use the cachet of the “homegrown” and the “grassroots,” predicated on their capacity to confer authenticity, to advance their budding careers. Occasionally, this manipulation of YouTube’s democratic image, in the service of a commercial agenda, will become a matter of public record, YouTube 69 as in the cases of Marié Digby, a singer-songwriter charged by the Wall Street Journal with “Feigning Amateur Status” (Smith and Lattman 2007), and the even more notorious creative team behind “lonelygirl15.” Digby, an artist signed to the Hollywood Records label, gained recognition on YouTube by performing acoustic covers of radio hits. She would have arguably failed to attract the widespread attention of YouTube viewers if she had not covered songs whose videos were likely, because of the songs’ established popularity, to be sought by users of the site’s search engine.

This reliance on predetermined commercial appeal and amplification of commercial hegemony was matched by a more covert strategy through which Digby depended upon and implicitly affirmed professional perquisites: the covers appeared to be improvised, but their selection, recording, and eventual distribution were, it has been charged, carefully orchestrated by Hollywood Records in consultation with Digby, who framed herself as an unconnected upstart and her growing stardom as spontaneous because she believed that viewers would respond more favorably to such a narrative (Smith and Lattman 2007). Tellingly, whatever controversy was generated by the Wall Street Journal article that first raised these issues has not impeded Digby’s success; her debut album, Unfold, released in April 2008, reached number 2 on the “iTunes Store Top 10 Albums” during its first week (Takishita 2008). In fact, the controversy—named as such in Digby’s Wikipedia entry—seems only to have helped the artist, operating in a context in which the blithe, mass acceptance of the adage that “all press is good press” has imbued it with awesome self-sustaining power (Wikipedia s.v. “Marié Digby”).

The actor Jessica Lee Rose has similarly benefited from such putatively controversial exposure. In 2006, Rose, a 19-year-old graduate of the New York Film Academy, personated Bree, a quirky, intelligent teenager who chafed against her parents’ strict religious views in videos posted to YouTube from an account registered to “lonelygirl15.” While some fascinated viewers—and there were many—initially assumed a simple and tidy coincidence of handle, age, affective state, and digitally imaged body (i.e., Bree is a lonely 15-year-old girl), intrepid bloggers discovered after several months that three filmmakers, working in league with an attorney employed by the Creative Artists Agency, had hired Rose to perform in their scripted videos, a serial prelude to a feature film that they may have hoped to make (Heffernan and Zeller 2006). Far from ending lonelygirl’s lease on life, the revelation of the series’ origins and production history brought it to the attention of even more millions of viewers than had originally watched it, allowed its uncloaked and thus less restricted creators to amplify its narrative and cast in subplots and eventual spinoffs, and landed Rose a number of other professional assignments, including her recurring role on the ABC Family TV series Greek (Internet Movie Database s.v. “Jessica Rose [VI]”).

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