YouTube Versus ‘Writer’s Block’

(I’m egomaniacally impressed with the use of inverted commas in the title)

In the wake of the development of the British YouTube sub-genre of ‘Oh my God being a content creator is difficult’, seen here, here, here (and God knows where else) in the last eighteen months or so, I thought I would consider why this had happened – with Charlie’s video in November 2012 starting it all off – and why it continues to happen, with Tim’s piece last month. Tim picked up on ‘writer’s block’ in his video, and while I wouldn’t say this is the case with the majority of YouTube examples, his point that ‘doing other things, unrelated from work, help[s]’ is very accurate in finding the cause of this problem: I think that British YouTube is running headlong into the problem that creation is fundamentally done in an irregular and patchy way, but the platform of YouTUbe encourages regular updates, prioritising quantity over quality.

If we look back to the land that time forgot, when archaic ‘books’, weird Kindle ancestors that could only hold a page of words at a time, and so several hundred had to be stitched together to generate a complete narrative, were a primary means of being creative, writers actually wrote few books: George Eliot wrote seven novels over an adult life of forty-three years, while Charlie McDonnell has published 185 videos over a seven-year span; at the current rate, Charlie will have uploaded 1,100 videos over a forty-two year period. Similarly, it took Dante thirteen years to write his Divine Comedy, while Lex Croucher’s public videos alone constitute 167 videos in less than half that time.

Obviously, these examples are wildly different in nature – and perhaps quality – but the difference is clear: vlogging is seen as a regular, metronomic pastime, whereas writing the greatest work of Italian literature was really more of a one-off.

And the need for uploads to be regular is seen across YouTube, not just in the British sphere; international trailblazer Littlekuriboh has had problems with uploading regularly throughout his show’s 61-episode run, prompting one distressed fan to ask Wiki Answers of all places for clarification on his upload schedule. The ease with which videos can be posted to YouTube – literally any teenager with a webcam can create art in the 21st Century, while by 1500, some suggest just 10-25% of the adult male population were literate, and able to engage with art – actively encourages regular updates, as the excuse that ‘I can’t’ doesn’t hold water.

Furthermore, the inherent personal connection of vloggers and audiences discourages long breaks between videos, as they develop like not seeing a friend for a long time, which can upset or unsettle audiences more than basic anger at not seeing enough episodes of an abridged series.

The audiences of a YouTuber themselves are also problematic when trying to weigh video quantity against quality; the fact that they are largely the kind of isolated teenagers their YouTube heroes can relate to, and in many cases know them personally from gatherings, means that the personality of YouTube works both ways – creators are afraid to create because they fear upsetting their fans. Charlie put this perfectly, putting his lack of video output down to a fear that ‘you [the audience] won’t like it, and by extension, you won’t like me’.

The commercialisation of YouTube has not helped matters either, with the majority of well-known YouTubers having no career outside of YouTube; Tim says ‘creativity becomes your job, and then you can’t’, suggesting that the massive need to produce any kind of video, regardless of quality or intelligence, simply to afford luxuries like a place to live, may shift the emphasis away from creating for the sake of telling a story, and towards creating for the sake of basic economic necessity. I feel these factors have all contributed to British YouTube’s collective ‘writer’s block’ in recent years.

There have been three main responses to this phenomenon, and have come over several years; the first, and most worrying from a creative perspective, is the ‘regular but turgid’ approach, a term I would apply to my own blogging towards the end of last month. In this case, the need to create trumps the desire to create, and so videos are churned out with depressing rigidity and regularity, and actual creativity is replaced with cut-and-paste ideas, namely the Tag video.

Back in Ye Day, the only real Tag video was Nerimon’s annual YouTube survey, a suitably uncommon occurrence, in which the flexibility of questions – ‘Why are you called that’ – allowed the format to serve as basic inspiration for anecdotes from individual YouTubers, a cornerstone of British YouTube, putting the emphasis on the answers, not the questions. But now, Tags like ‘What’s in my bag’ dominate the Internet, that are both mind-bendingly simpler, with their single-question focus lacking the universal relateability of old Tag videos, and insane length, with some hitting seventeen minutes to answer this single question that I could cover with five letters – ‘books’. I feel this change in Tag Videos is appropriately symbolic of the response of YouTube to the issue of creativity.

Another response is the ‘inherently regular’ one, exemplification for which will come from America, with Stephen Georg currently maintaining a 1,585-day streak of daily vlogs. Here, coming up with ideas is not difficult, as the vlog days mimic Stephen’s real life, so whatever he does is immediately video-worthy, and prevents the content of these videos from becoming too turgid and repetitive, as human life isn’t as dull and similar-looking as today’s Tag videos would suggest. However, this approach does require a massive commitment – with Stephen himself once asking ‘does my life define the vlog, or the vlog define my life’ – and is perhaps a painfully clear example of all the fun being removed from being creative: if we can only avoid repetition of content by a repetition of filming one’s day over and over, does this not suggest that all online creativity will grind to an end of repetition somehow?

The third response is my favourite, and involves the Charlie McDonnell ‘irregular but good’ school of thought: make a video once every three weeks, but make it good. And this fits in with the shift to short films and web series over the past few years of British YouTube: Jack Howard now makes four-part action shows, Charlie himself has released two excellent short films – The Tea Chronicles and Offline – in the last year, and Becoming YouTube is the best series on the site right now, and it’s well worth the month-long delays between supposedly ‘weekly’ episodes.

And this may not have pleased the fans, myself included at one point, but might be cheaper to produce than other short films – as I’d image YouTubers employ a sort of mates’ rates scheme when it comes to acting in and shooting each other’s pieces – negating the benefits of the first response, and really do prove that YouTube is a platform for more than just cat and hair-based Tag videos.

I’m also encouraged by the support offered in the comments of those initial videos, with some even diagnosing Charlie with forms of social anxiety disorder; I suppose that whatever happens on British YouTube, and regardless of how uncreative the video-makers will feel, the inherently blurred lines between creators and consumers of content means there’ll always be an army of supporters and sympathisers to help all of us get over our problems: your preference of the three solutions I’ve offered, or even a fourth or fifth of your own, is a subjective opinion, but it’s objective fact that working together to overcome writer’s block is a pretty good thing for all involved.

Links:

Charlie McDonnell – I’m Scared

Tim Hautekiet – Creative Crisis

Georg Eliot

The Divine Comedy

Sarah Woodbury on Literacy in the Middle Ages

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