Outsiders and critics often think of YouTube and computer gaming as entertaining and quite superficial modes of cultural consumption. I have increasingly moved away from that point of view, and to pursue the argument I will note that lately my favorite YouTube video is Magnus Carlsen doing 100 chess endgames in 30 minutes. That is not recommended for most of you, but I believe that is part of the point. I now think of YouTube as a communications medium with (often, not always) high upfront “investment in context” costs. So if a lot of videos seem stupid to you, well sometimes they are but other times you don’t have enough context to understand them, or for that matter to condemn them for the right reasons. This “high upfront costs” model is consistent with the semi-addictive behavior exhibited by many loyal YouTube users. Once you start going down a rabbit hole, it can be hard to stop, and the “YouTube is superficial” models don’t really predict that kind of user behavior, rather they predict mere channel-surfing.
Did you know that Yonas, my Ethiopian contact in Lalibela, and recipient of royalties from my book Stubborn Attachments, loves YouTube videos on early Armenian church history? He seems to know all about that topic. A lot of those same videos would not make much sense to me. I could follow them, but they wouldn’t communicate much meaning, whereas the Ethiopian and Armenian Christian churches have a fair amount in common, including in their early histories.
Has the popularity of PewDiePie — 103 million subscribers — ever mystified you? I have in fact come to understand the material is brilliant, though not in a way I care about or wish to come to grasp in any kind of detailed way. For me the entry costs are just too high relative to the kind of payoff I would achieve. You really have to watch a lot of videos to get anywhere with grasping the contexts of his various jokes and remarks.
This also helps explain why there is no simple way to find “the best videos on YouTube.”
Perhaps computer games have some of the same properties. They have great meaning to those who know their ins and outs, but leave many others quite cold. Sometimes I hear people that things like “Twenty or thirty years from now, computer games will develop into great works of art.” I doubt that. To whatever extent computer games are/will be aesthetically notable, those properties are probably already in place, just with fairly high upfront context costs and thus inaccessible to someone such as I.
The high upfront costs, of course, mean a high degree of market segmentation and thus perhaps relatively high profits for suppliers, at least in the aggregate if not in every case.
Could it be that these top cultural forms of today have higher upfront costs than say appreciating 18th century Rococo painting?
In any case, trying to understand the cultural codes of 2020 is a truly difficult enterprise.
For this material, I wish to thank a related conversation with S.