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What can YouTube do for stories?

In the third of his series of essays investigating technology and storytelling, Professor David Trotter, who teaches literature and screen media at the University of Cambridge, wonders how we should best understand YouTube, as a medium.

If we’re talking about what technology can do for stories, the headline statistic has to be the 60 hours of video uploaded to You Tube every minute. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of people whom technology has enabled to tell a tale they wouldn’t otherwise have told. ‘Tell a tale’ is putting it broadly, of course. In many cases, there’s no telling done at all. Even when there is, the bar as to what constitutes narrative has usually been set low. That said, if a story is a representation of a sequence of events from which meaning can be deduced, then YouTube counts as a narrative medium. What has it done for stories?

In trying to answer that question, I find myself drawn back inexorably to the first ever YouTube video, uploaded at 8:27 pm on Saturday April 23rd, 2005, by co-founder Jawed Karim. It lasts 19 seconds, and is called, with unerring accuracy, ‘Me at the Zoo’.

The gist of the tale Jawed has to tell is that elephants have really, really (really) long trunks. ‘And that’s cool,’ he adds. Weighty pause. ‘And that’s pretty much all there is to say.’ And then he’s gone.

The cool belongs to Jawed, of course, rather than to the elephants, who have had to take their trunks pretty much as they find them. The elephants don’t get to pause weightily (or if they do, it’s for the benefit of some other audience altogether).

What is Jawed about? Clearly, he’s not one to make a big deal out of an inaugural event: the emergence of a new social medium. Event there is, none the less. For Jawed isn’t just standing anywhere. He’s standing in a particular place at a particular time, and he wants to tell us about it. There could have been (perhaps there ought to have been) a representation – shocking, poignant, slapstick, whatever – of elephants in a zoo. But there won’t be. For the 19 seconds of video, while it looks like the beginning of a story, is in fact something else altogether. What greets us is not a fictional world which has some bearing, direct or indirect, on the world we ourselves inhabit. It’s a piece of information: henceforth YouTube exists. Jawed has sent us a message – ‘Me at San Diego Zoo on YouTube’ – to which the only appropriate response is another message: ‘Me, too, at [enter location here] Zoo on YouTube’. Many have since responded, in one way or another.

Jawed’s amiable performance conceals a fundamental disagreement concerning the best use of a medium like YouTube. A message is the ‘business’ we entrust to a channel of communication, human, mechanical, or electronic. Mission is a closely related term. When we say that we’re going to send someone a message, we don’t mean that we’re going to tell them a story. Stories, it’s customary to say, don’t have a message. They don’t amount to a mission statement; or if they do, they fail as stories. By not telling a tale, when it looks as though he ought to, Jawed declares that YouTube will be a messaging rather than a narrative medium.

There is a productive (though by no means absolute) distinction to be made, where media are concerned, between the representational and the connective. Representational media attract the ‘-graphy’ suffix: phonography, photography, cinematography. They involve the storage and deferred release of information: that is, a writing in light, in sound, in movement. The record makes the image or sound originally captured at another time in another place present again, as we watch or listen.

The axiom of representational media might be: two places at two times (the place where the image once left its imprint on emulsion, or wax, and the place where it has now been projected). The principle or value articulated by media used to represent arises out of that double removal in time and space. Representational media, it could be said, enable us to reflect upon a reflection of our world.

The axiom of connective (or ‘tele-’) media, by contrast, is two places at one time: telegraphy, telephony. Their primary purpose has always been instantaneous, real-time, and preferably interactive one-to-one communication at a distance. Digitalisation has of course hugely enhanced the scope of connective media. Connectivity, too, can be understood as a principle or value. Its promise of flexible efficiency, of messages delivered intact anywhere at any time, by a variety of channels, has become fundamental, for better or worse, to the functioning of industrial and post-industrial societies.

Jawed’s video is a representation – the images and sounds captured in San Diego Zoo in 2005 made present once again as we watch and listen in hundreds of thousands of different places in 2012 and thereafter – which denies its own status as representation. It would rather be a message instantly provoking other messages. He might just as well have phoned it in.

Could there be stories which don’t just inhabit a messaging medium, as millions of YouTube videos do, but rather explore, develop, or interrogate its foundational claim to connectivity? How would such stories work? It might be possible to sequence messages so that they perform a commentary on messaging itself (like a chapter in a novel which consists entirely of the two ends of a telephone conversation). Or story could come about by a tampering with process. Messages fail if they don’t arrive on time, whereas stories are enriched by slowing down. Stories slack off (built into them is the lapse in time and space between the moment of their capture and the moment of their transmission); in slacking off, they allow us to feel differently about ourselves, and the world. Maybe that’s what the elephants at San Diego Zoo are slowly saying, to some other audience altogether, as Jawed wraps it up.

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