A Critical Approach to Convergence Culture

On May 26th 2010, Lady Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter, stated that he and Lady Gaga “create music videos for YouTube” . Further he explained how advertisement isn’t a large revenue source for the artist or record company (Rao 2010) . What does this mean? What are Lady Gaga, and her million dollar music videos doing on YouTube along with all the amateur video bloggers? This is what can be encoded as a paradigm shift because the sets of opinions about the music industry and the music videos have shifted directions and all of a sudden we have something called user generated content. On YouTube you are both the viewer and the producer. Imagine just 10 years ago when MTV stood for mainstream music releases.
It is Lady Gaga’s music video Paparazzi and her tweets on Twitter and Tweetpic that I am using as an example to support my arguments in this paper. The purpose is to map this change and try to explain its effects based on those examples only. This paper is just as subjective as I am. Twitter and YouTube are a great interest of mine and I consider myself a big fan. So is Henry Jenkins whose theories in Convergens Culture – where old and new media collide, is going to help me explain what is going on in the process of a convergence of our culture (Jenkins 2006:12). In this paper I will start off by giving my understanding of what Jenkins says in his book to explain what exactly is going on. Stuart Hall’s Encoding, Decoding model is also introduced in this paper. It is for example interesting to look at that model in context with user generated content, because in this communication model you stand on both sides it seems; viewer and producer. This is background for further analysis of my issues in this paper.
(My thesis)
The issues in this paper are how convergence of old and new media changes the degree of user generated content in media. In this paper I will argue to what extent does YouTube- and Twitter-era change the relationship between producer and recipient or viewer. I will divide this discussion into three issues concerning professionalism, user generated content, and mainstreaming. By professionalism I mean the content development, user generated content, referred to UGC on this writing, occurs when the viewers become the producers, and mainstreaming is according to George Gerbner’s cultivation theory, the blurring, blending and bending process when heavy viewers develop a common socially conservative outlook through constant exposure to the same images and labels. Heavy viewers are described as people watching more than four hours of television per day (Gerbner 2009: 352). The reason why I wish to bring Gerbner’s theory in this writing is to connect how stereotypes can apply from television onto convergence culture which makes comparison and contrasting interesting when it comes to YouTube and UGC.
What I want to bring up to discussion in this paper is a critical view on the user generated content, how we use YouTube and who use it. In an online world where anyone can upload and download close to anything, what are the limits? To what extent does YouTube change the meaning of mainstreaming? And what are the relations of these kinds of productions. This is where I will bring Hall’s Encoding, Decoding model in. I will look at the concepts of relations of production, framework of knowledge and technical infrastructure in context with the principles of mainstreaming, user generated content and professionalism.
What Henry Jenkins introduces in the book Convergence Culture – where old and new media collide, is the flow of content across different platforms of media. It merges technological, cultural and social changes depending on who is uploading, where you upload it, on what platform and what you upload. A part of the convergence culture is also participation culture, when consumers no longer are passive spectators. Some will have greater abilities to participate in this culture, both corporate media and individuals, in other words some will have more power (Jenkin 2006s: 3). Collective intelligence is the third part of Jenkins’ convergence culture, meaning an added incentive that makes it possible to store more information than the human brain allows us. This comes handy in this culture because we can combine what we know and this is what he calls collective intelligence, a term coined from Pierre Lévy (Jenkins 2006: 4).
This is new media as they call it, but it is really just a convergence of the so called old media, a development that is inevitable and certainly not final. Personally I like this development, but what does it mean? We choose what we want to watch, read and the best thing about it, we comment on. That is in my opinion the beauty of my beloved YouTube and Twitter era. I do not think there is any question on what we can find on the Internet, but what are we selecting to watch?
If we type in “paparazzi” in the search field on YouTube, we will quickly see that there is more than one video. There is the official music video, some other who looks just the same only with lyrics, along with some live performances and someone trying to sound like Lady Gaga. All together there are more than 270.000 videos of that song. The three that shows up first of Lady Gaga herself has 46, 17 and 7 million views. What we can see from this quick search is that even the easiest statistics show that Lady Gaga has a lot of viewers. The video of Greyson Chance, who is the most popular cover of “Paparazzi”, has 2 million views. When one single YouTube upload, here “Paparazzi” has 46 million views, we can assume that the uploader – viewer ratio is not in balance.
As Hall mentions George Gerbner in his article, so will I. His theories about television touch many studies of media and his assumptions apply to convergence culture and YouTube. Gerbner’s statement was that television homogenizes its audience whereby heavy viewers share the same orientations, perspectives and meanings (Gerbner 2009: 352). As I mentioned initially television blur socially conservative outlooks through constant exposure to the same images and labels. Television also glorifies certain groups in society, such as the white middle class (Gerbner 2009: 353). The same patterns are to be seen on YouTube. From this we can assume that YouTube is not so different from television, because regardless of the next to unlimited content, we still watch the same type of content, and only a few of us are the actual uploaders. I do not think that everyone can make it on YouTube, and those who do are within a certain group of acceptance.
I would like to take this point a bit further. We see that there can possibly be some similarities from television with all its limitations and YouTube with all it its possibilities. Who makes it on YouTube, who broadcasts themselves and actually get views and money from it? There are some examples, but they fit the same characteristics. They are white, young and funny enough for their subscribers to see what they upload each time. For the most part they are good looking too. The number of successful YouTube uploaders that does not fall under this category is particularly low. Same goes for television. The stereotypes that different racial groups are given on television are obvious and polarized. A study by Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki in their book The Black Image in the White Mind shows that black female movie characters are using vulgar profanity in 89 % of the cases, while white female movie characters are using vulgar profanity in only 17 % of the cases. The roles black movie characters have also tend to be more violent and more involved with criminal affaires than white movie characters (Entman/ Rojecki 2000).
From what we can learn from these studies about the viewers of television and convergence culture, I would like to highlight a couple of concepts. From this writings standpoint, Gerbner’s idea of mainstreaming was ahead of his time, because it involves particularly who produces what, which is transferable to YouTube and its limitations. With limitations I mean the extent of what we see that is made from the same uploaders as Gerbner originally pointed to as supreme producers.
I am not trying to argue against the concept of that in theory YouTube can be used by whomever wants it and however he or she wants to use it. My indications are based more on how this works in practice, how it is used in real life. As I see it, YouTube is divided in two sections in that matter. I will be looking at the technical infrastructure, and discuss how that indicates that YouTube is not for everyone. I will also address in this section how UGC on other arenas, such as Twitter, determines the viewer’s reception of the videos and its uploaders. I will still be using the video Paparazzi and Lady Gaga as an example. The background for this idea is the fact that Lady Gaga acts like an amateur, on Twitter for example, but still makes x-amount of dollars and her imitators on YouTube still work at Target.
Technical infrastructure in Hall’s Encoding, Decoding Model refers to the physicals tools in a production. The music video Paparazzi is made with some of the most advanced cameras and by the most elite directors in the world. It is so well thought through that many will say that it is its own form of art. A point to underline is that so called amateur bloggers or other uploaders on YouTube have the access to HD cameras and can upload high quality videos. This does not mean that they become less amateurs and it has no significant effect on what viewers select to watch. A majority of users of the Internet have the capability to upload videos on YouTube, but it is the content and not least the people behind the content that distinguish videos with fewer views from those with many views. That is what differentiates Lady Gaga from the average Internet user.
Furthermore, the supreme producers may lower their quality, such as posting low pixel pictures on Tweetpic. Twitter and Tweetpic has been an arena that makes is possible for viewers to be a part of the production, or at least viewers get the feeling that they are. When Paparazzi was released it leaked a couple of weeks before on YouTube and Lady Gaga responded to this by tweeting “Stop leaking my motherfucking videos”. I do not think this is anything other than a stunt by the producers. Creating a kick start to the discussion around paparazzi was a good idea because it was different and many critics stated that it “deserved a red carpet”. At this time lady Gaga was already a core user of Twitter and was posting backstage photos of herself in fabulous costumes by Alexander McQueen (Kreps 2009). This combination is very efficient in terms of publicity.
By posting pictures from the studio while being in the process of making an album, Lady Gaga invites her viewers into her world. This is not only strategic to make her more reachable for her fans, but it also serves as a media for forwarding her music and herself as the brand Lady Gaga. This self-branding and the discussion around the brand Lady Gaga that follows, is what makes manager Carter say that advertisement is not a large revenue resource for Lady gaga and the record label.
In this matter it is also interesting to look at the advertisement aspect in the video. The official video of Paparazzi is uploaded with Vevo which shows a commercial before the video begins. In addition to that, the video itself displays for example earphones of Lady Gaga’s own brand (LadyGagaVEVO 2010). Because advertizing pays for the making, viewers pay to see this video. Also the viewers are doing the forwarding of not only the video itself but also of the advertisement because they are not only paying with their time, they also go out buying these earphones, one can assume that YouTube is used as a platform of advertising via forwarding essentially in the supreme producer’s favor.
In terms of relations of productions from Hall’s Encoding, Decoding Model, Paparazzi is about maintaining the looking field of the content across different productions. That can reflect on what can be described as Lady Gaga and her producers truthfulness to Lady Gaga the image. That is important when making music videos such as Paparazzi, because you want the viewers to recognize that brand, also for the discussions sake as mentioned above. The director of Paparazzi Jonas Åkerlund was not hired by convenience. He had made controversial videos for Madonna and U2 among others and this is why he was selected to make Paparazzi (TheBlackPelicans 2010). In addition to relations of production I wish to address another way of encoding the message. Paparazzi have an active way of controlling to some extent, how viewers receive the message of the content. In the next section I will address certain issues regarding professionalism with focus on the frameworks of knowledge, what determines the media content, how it is viewed and what that does with the relationship between producer and recipient or viewer.
There is always a debate and discussion around Lady Gaga and the controversial videos that she makes. The decisions in making the videos are not random. There are a lot of factors playing in part and some of them distinguish the professionals from the armatures more than others. One thing that makes Paparazzi so catchy for many viewers is how they see familiar elements and people appearing in the video. First point is the connections to Hitchcock’s Vertigo; the scenario in Paparazzi is based on the location of the homage of the movie (Kreps 2010). Basing the content on something so widely known, a cultural phenomenon almost, is an example of frameworks of knowledge which Hall’s model is one of the elements that makes a meaningful discourse. The outcome of this is publicity in the big picture, but if we take a closer look the effects of this are severe. It created a flow of blog posts, people dressing up as the couple for Halloween and it in general revived Hitchock’s work. Furthermore I would like to mention that Lady Gaga redid this idea by applying elements of Tarantino in the follow-up music video Telephone (Gregory 2010).
Paparazzi was released in June 2009, when the popular vampire TV series True Blood had been running for almost a year. The “hot Swedish guy” from True Blood, Alexander Skarsgård, was hired to star in Paparazzi and this makes a valuable point (imdb: Skarsgård). Skarsgård’s recent fame was going to draw the viewers into loving this video and create even more publicity. Amateur uploaders are able to play on the same theory, to select familiar elements to their message, but it can never compare to how the professionals do it. The extent of this is something amateurs are not able to perform and with the large effects it has on viewers one can assume that the producers are in fact ruling YouTube with its superiority.
I would like to sum up these examples into what I would describe as professionalism. Relations and power have their own culture on YouTube, at the same time they are the ones to determine the limitations and possibilities. In the terms of convergence culture one can assume that the way the producers encode their message is a way to show their power.
Jenkins’ participation culture says that some people or corporations will always be more powerful when it comes to convergence media. This is what I have been trying to emphasize in this writing. The examples that support this statement have been based on the idea of mainstreaming, user generated content and professionalism. Mainstreaming is a term form Gerbner’s cultivation theory and refers to how viewers chose to watch the same content. I have made the comparison to convergence media because I believe that the same producers from television are behind what we watch on YouTube.
The second example, UGC, is what explains how some have more power on these arenas. The technical infrastructure makes Lady Gaga’s video more attractive and based on this the writing also assume that the viewers are only used as a arena for forwarding the video. In my opinion are the discussions around Lady Gaga insignificant, because it is the idea of forwarding the video that is valuable for Lady Gaga and her producers.
My third and last supporting example is professionalism in terms of relations of production and frameworks of knowledge. The people used in the production, such as Åkerlund, play a part of how Paparazzi distinguishes from amateur YouTube videos. Using a director with experience in the same type of music videos makes to some extent a connection from one production to another. The image of Lady Gaga must be maintained and by exposing the viewers to the same content they will hold on to the viewers. Another factor that makes viewers chose professional made content rather than amateur content is the connections of familiar elements. When referring to Hitchock or starring popular actors Lady Gaga achieves to create more publicity and discussion.
Many people would say that with social media the relationship between producer and recipient or viewer is blurred, but I do not think that is the case. The basis of power that some actors hold can be for example social or financial, but this is another question that needs immersive research. The roles may be different due to the convergence culture but not blurred. In general we select the same content to watch by the same producers and regardless of the possibility to upload; users of the Internet are no more than arena for forwarding. I think that for now, the participation culture ends there.

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