Television may be remembered, among other things, as having entered a “golden age” even as it ceased to exist. As a term, television feels increasingly inapt, vestigial, at risk of acquiring the air quotes that presage irrelevance. Still, it refers to a form—episodic, moving-image narrative—for which we have not yet found a better alias, beyond awkward talk of streaming content and on-demand services, and the shorthand that is Netflix, a brand name that suggests the merger of two media, neither of which is television. As good “television” proliferates, television as a medium and as an experience is in decline.
The experience of television combined separation and togetherness; to tune in to a popular show was to commune without community. Television made entertainment a more private affair, even as it maintained the idea of entertainment as a public event. In real and abstract terms, advertising was integral to television: When technology made it possible for viewers to bypass the commercials, the whole concept of television began to break down. Today, Americans are rapidly losing interest in the medium as a medium, shedding their cable subscriptions and failing to turn in the same numbers to televised professional football or basketball games. What it offered, in the form it was provided, is no longer quite the thing. I haven’t turned on my TV in months. It’s pressed against the wall like a geek at the dance, unloved and unlooked at.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger argued that, beginning in the sixteenth century, “a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil painting, and could not have found it in any other visual art form.” It was the beginning of the culture of things, and thingness, within which “All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality.” Oil painting became the predominant art form because it rendered most tangible “the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts,” conveying “a vision of total exteriority” at a time when the acquisition and display of material possessions, and the presentation of a sort of material self, became the foremost way of experiencing and organizing the world.
The reciprocal process by which an art form rises from and reflects a culture’s way of seeing took on a dizzying velocity with the arrival of the photographic and then the moving image. The influence of the one over the other, the symbiotic exchange between reality and its reflection, became more and more difficult to parse. For Berger, more than movies or television, advertising images define modern ways of seeing, a domination that bears a direct relation to that of the oil painting, because both speak “in the same voice about the same things.” Before it was anything else, oil painting “was a celebration of private property,” an art form “derived from the principle that you are what you have”; advertising “proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.”
Whereas television could not survive without it, advertising scuttled on, finding both rival and ally in the internet, which is devoted to the idea of the individual as both spectator and actor, the consumer and the consumed. The internet is not strictly concerned with the objectives of art, entertainment, or even commerce; how to monetize this new technology became one of the leading questions of the twenty-first century. Rather than overturning them, that technology replicated the cultural traditions from which it emerged: The internet favors the present, passing moment, making a supreme virtue of choice and turning “consumption into a substitute for democracy,” as Berger wrote of advertising. Still, few could have predicted how fully its users would participate in the internet’s commodification, which has led already-dominant cultural codes and norms to near-global hegemony.
The growing ubiquity of variously sized personal computer screens, and the devotion of users to them, suggests a sort of addiction to diversion. But previous modes of entertainment have not just been modified, privatized, their terms polluted—they have been made extinct. If everything is entertainment, nothing is entertainment. There may be moments of diversion and moments of dullness, but the relationship between a user and her device is above all an automatic transaction. We look at screens because it feels like the natural thing to do: Looking at a screen and not looking at a screen are now more or less continuous ways of seeing the world.
Instead of turning on the television, for some time now I have turned to YouTube. For several years after its inception in 2005, I didn’t understand anything beyond a brief and functional use of the platform, which had obvious value as both a research archive and a repository of cat videos. Mostly I sought out and was sucked in by broadcast relics of the past. The notion of personal, user-generated “channels” seemed at once quaint and incipient in a way I wasn’t prepared to fathom. Watching an eleven-year-old in my care upload to her channel a video of girlish chatter and living room gymnastics confirmed the paradox and my reluctance to pursue it.
At some point, though—around the time that focusing entirely on an entire TV show or movie became a challenge—I found myself lingering on YouTube, and clicking more idly, sometimes on last night’s TV clips, sometimes on one of the host of young female faces that appeared in my suggestions, offering counsel, beauty tutorials, a look at their daily routines. Surely an algorithm had contrived the appearance of the girls in my feed, though media of every form traditionally prove them pretty hard to avoid.
I recall the incredulity with which I watched an affable Canadian young woman walk her viewers through her “winter evening routine,” a process involving various products and grooming tips. And then I recall clicking on another, in which this same girl got ready for the day—more products, more tips. YouTube began to present me with more such videos, by more such young women: routines for every season; weekday and weekend; “realistic” routines offering an alternative to the routine videos that felt too slickly produced. The videos are exactly as described: Watch a random girl light candles and wash her face; see what she eats in a day. The most popular have hundreds of thousands of views.
To be good at this sort of thing is to be a natural spokesperson—for the right products, and for one’s own highly engineered, material, and photogenic lifestyle. The best have mastered a certain aesthetic and “authentic” style of behavior on camera, blending brand and persona such that it satisfies the contemporary viewer’s impossibly sophisticated yet wildly degraded standard for such things. The most popular YouTubers address in a consistent way the appetite that seems to power much of the platform’s user-generated content, for practical answers to two central questions: 1) What is real life like? and 2) How can I escape from it?
The leading genres and subgenres to emerge on YouTube suggest just how un-radical—how dead bourgeois—this corner of the media revolution turned out to be. For me, the product-placed ablutions of a young woman in a face mask and bathrobe led pretty much directly to the realm of “haul” and “unboxing” videos, both of which involve the display and discussion of (often copious) recent purchases, anything from beauty products to tech gadgets to cars. Unboxing, a term that currently yields over 60 million YouTube search results, sometimes involves mystery (what’s in the box!) and always centers on the ritual of opening a package, assessing its contents, and showing them off. Though by design strictly disposable, exterior, and mercenary, the event turns on feelings, of which the unboxer has many—usually variations of excitement and pleasure. Something feels good, or feels like it’s working, or makes them feel some kind of way; expensive is also a feeling. Rather than aroused or entertained, the viewer is meant to be soothed: Watching someone in a state of consumer ecstasy transmits and confirms some essential knowledge of the way the world works.
“Publicity is the culture of the consumer society,” wrote Berger. “It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself.” Though merchandisers were quick to capitalize on lifestyle and unboxing- and haul-oriented content, making the relationship official with sponsorships, collaborations, and quantities of free crap, the videos are in fact an organic phenomenon, consumer-supplied to meet consumer demand. They appear as evidence in the case for advertising’s absolute lock on the modern way of seeing and of being in the world, the way of selling and being sold, to which the internet proposed not a challenge but a form of amplification. “It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art,” Berger wrote in 1972. I could disagree only with that hopeful “moribund”; we may be heralding the end of the consumer society for centuries to come.
A ne plus ultra moment arrives, nevertheless, with some regularity. One has taken the form of mukbang, a South Korean phenomenon that has spread across the world. Loosely translated from the Korean as “eating show,” mukbang videos invite viewers to watch a (usually young) person eat a (usually enormous) meal in their home. In South Korea, the trend took the form of a live-streamed event, in which the on-camera diner interacted with viewers, who were encouraged to send donations. Some attribute the popularity of mukbang videos in Asia to the rise of single-person households and the erosion of traditional communal meals. Lonely, homesick viewers might now set a plate in front of their screens and pretend to eat in company.
American versions of mukbang, as found on YouTube, have largely done away with the live, interactive element. The spectacle of consumption is the point. The amount of food is generally large, if not eating-competition large; junk food brands and fast-food chains appear frequently. American YouTubers took mukbang out of the home and into IHOP, Hooters, and Chinese buffets. Staging mukbangs in the car is another popular option. Viewers might watch mukbang to be grossed out or turned on, the two most obvious and carnal responses. But mukbangs tend to be extended affairs, and inherently dull; the intended effect seems to be hypnotic, even numbing. One teenage girl, seated in front of a plate of fettucine alfredo, prefaced her own mukbang video by shouting out the mukbangers she loves the most: “Literally, they help me with anxiety—whenever I have anxiety, I watch mukbangs to fall asleep.”
YouTube may find its ultimate expression as a sleep aid. Certainly it evidences a desperate search for escape from the condition it manifests—a constant state of escape—by which to lose consciousness is to triumph. One of the more baroque genres in this vein is known as ASMR—autonomous sensory meridian response. Coined in 2010, the name captures a growing appetite for online content that elicits the sensation, in short, of intimacy. Introducing her channel, a YouTuber known as “ASMR Darling” describes ASMR as “a calming, euphoric, tingly feeling,” one she associates with childhood, when physical gestures of loving attention—fingers running through your hair, or stroking your back—produced a sense of safety and well-being. ASMR Darling typifies the successful ASMR YouTuber: very young, female, pretty if not sexy, guileless, and game. In the search for novel ASMR “triggers,” nothing is too bizarre: Standards of the genre include whispering, word repetition, role playing, close-ups, eye contact, lens caressing, brushing, tapping, and an intensely hot mic.
It sounds kinky because it is. But fans insist the effect is therapeutic, comforting, asexual. Or perhaps pre-sexual, given the emphasis on inducing a childlike state of total care and protection. (Some commenters claim to be children themselves.) By its own logic, the more outré and apparently fetishistic the effort, the more likely a video is to zone or knock you out. ASMR Darling’s most popular video, “10 Triggers to Help You Sleep,” features mic brushing, water play, scissor- and sticky-tape sounds, and blowing into a narrow vase opening. It has over 13 million views.
Everything about ASMR makes me sad, beginning with the faux-medical name. As though feeling lonely, untouched, or in need of soothing are matters of science. It’s the genre’s elaborate lengths, and not the condition it addresses, that I find poignant, the earnest assembly of equipment and props, the tedious effort to simulate human connection. Or perhaps that is too generous: ASMR, after all, targets the nervous system, and seeks a primal response. In this it is compatible with the culture to which it proposes an antidote—the culture of crude stimulation, transience, a steady flow of signals and noise, and of the hapless consumer. The many variations of ASMR include ASMR haul videos, unboxing ASMR, mukbang ASMR, and ASMR get ready/unready routines. The genres combine easily because they are extensions of the same impulse.
Twelve years in, YouTube is likely already dead, or nearly so—to be replaced by the next in a succession of increasingly divergent and micro-niche social media platforms. New tools for an old, if not moribund, machine. What might all of those windows open onto, if not a vault into which the visible, the material has been deposited, to be coveted and consumed? Where might all of those looming faces turn, beyond the faces that can only loom in reply? The eyes are weary but the will to see is strong; I’ll probably keep watching.