(Originally published in 2009 and still highly relevant.)
Twitter’s limit of 140 characters is one way that the medium shapes the message and the conversation. Wesch talked about the ways that digital media affect self-awareness and the construction of identity. Twitter’s “What are you doing?” contributes to “lifecasting” or “mindcasting.” In creating YouTube videos, we have no idea who, exactly, will be watching. We talk to the webcam. And when we look at YouTube videos, we are watching others without staring at them. Context collapses, as we saw in the “Bomb Iran” performance of John McCain, who thought his behavior was perfectly acceptable to the audience he was addressing in person, military veterans. But when the performance, captured digitally, appeared on YouTube, the context changed completely, as did the reception of his act.
I was particularly struck by Wesch’s comment that the anonymity and physical distance inherent in both traditional and digital media have enabled what he calls “hatred as public performance.” We see this on reality TV, in flame wars and vicious comments posted on YouTube, blogs and other places. It’s one outcome of the tide of narcissism that afflicts our culture, combined with a sense of hopelessness and impotence, the behavioral amplification of “whatever.” At the same time, he says that it’s important to have sites where comments can be posted anonymously, as a mechanism for great creativity and as a safeguard for free speech.
In spite of what seems to be a bleak analysis, Wesch is moved by what he sees as real and caring community on YouTube, and the emergence of more civil discourse through crowd ratings of the content of posts on Reddit (Wikipedia notes that “When there are enough votes against a given comment, it will not be displayed by default… Users who submit articles which other users like and subsequently “vote up” receive “karma” points as a reward…”). He’s amused and encouraged by the Free Hugs video that went viral on YouTube (as of this writing, the video has been viewed 50,748,157 times), and the kindness off the responses to a YouTube creator who spoke about her hopelessness.
There’s opportunity and danger in digital media, Wesch says, and we need to see and seize the opportunity or we’ll be washed up thanks to mainstream media. We need to be aware how the machine is using us, so we can guide the future.