Over the past few months I have taken an increasing interest in Youtube. I used to use it only when I wanted to watch a music video. But nowadays you can log on and find a myriad of YouTubers all desperate for you to hit that subscribe button and notification bell. You can watch videos which are little more than a scrapbook of people’s lives. You can see what people bought when out shopping, which they creatively refer to as ‘hauls’ You can watch them eat their dinner, go out to the cinema, have a coffee with their friends. You can see them on holiday, share their delight in being sponsored by a huge retailer and watch them as their wealth increases until such point as they become virtually unrecognisable from the impoverished, straightforward, fame-hungry person who first started the videos.
Just about anyone can become a YouTuber and it has almost become the preferred aspiration for many young people. All you require is a phone to record your daily life. Who wouldn’t want to be paid for doing very little or just existing? I know my own generation find this form of entertainment bizarre and we are currently starting to question that if this is the favoured entertainment of our younger generation, what is going to happen to television, theatre and cinema? My children seem to have a very nonchalant attitude towards it and it is their perception of normality. I am surprised when I speak to my students who tell me that they rarely watch any form of traditional media nowadays. To them, entertainment has to be instantly accessible. Gone are the days of waiting for your favourite show to be on television and tuning in at the same time every week. Now it is almost as though they have their own fast food version of entertainment. It must be available on demand.
In a 1968 exhibition of his work, Andy Warhol, the great pop artist. once declared, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” I wonder if he ever envisaged the full implications of his prophecy? For on YouTube everyone is famous. The more subscribers you have, then the more famous you are. And just like the fast and easily-disposable nature of all the clothes from Primark and the hauls from Poundland that these YouTubers produce, the longevity of their careers is precarious. They only have to write one mis-judged comment on Twitter or Instagram for their fame and celebrity to come tumbling down.
Yet when we look back at entertainment over the years, is this form really so innovative and dissimilar to what has gone before? The very first ‘fly on the wall’ documentary, ‘The Family’ was screened on BBC television as early as 1974 and followed the working-class Wilkins family through their daily lives as they prepared for the wedding of one of their daughters. It was filmed initially as a sociological experiment and led to many debates and much criticism. My parents would not allow me to watch it the first time around. It was reshown in 1983 with a follow-up episode that showed the changes in the family since the seventies. My brother and I found it compelling viewing, possibly for all the wrong reasons. We couldn’t stop laughing when we saw how this family lived on account of their youngest daughter, who liked to stand facing the wall sulking in the corner of the kitchen, as a reaction against the way she was treated. We used to laugh at the ignorance of the family. We couldn’t help but snigger at their garrish taste in decor, especially when they built a bar in the tiny living room of their terraced house. We found their behaviour and circumstances funny, possibly because it made us feel superior and glad that we were not ‘in their shoes’. Yet In truth we were not that far removed from the rubberneckers who stare at accidents or even the Romans witnessing Gladiator fights.
I remember when Big Brother first started in the UK in 2000. It was based upon George Orwell’s science fiction novel 1984, which is set in a dystopian world where an individual’s every move is watched on camera and controlled. Many accused the new show ‘Big Brother’ of being the dumbing-down of television and the lack of intelligent programming. I watched the very first series and there was much in it that was reminiscent of that great tradition; pantomime. The villains were booed and the heros or favoured ones were cheered. This continued throughout the show’s many series until it ended in 2018. Big Brother led to an influx of reality series programming; many catering to the needs of the audience to watch suffering or humiliation. ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’ has always been one of my favourites. Its format relies heavily on seeing household names humiliated by enduring challenges such as having to eat kangaroo testicles or being trampled on by rats. This show is reminiscent of The Clive James Show, shown in the Eighties and hosted by Clive James, the journalist and television critic. His show was made up of shocking television clips from Around the World and frequently included a Japanese show called Endurance in which contestants made up from University students had to try to outdo each other in withstanding highly unpleasant experiences. At the time, this appeared to be so far removed from what we saw on our television channels and yet it was only a matter of time before it also became our normality.
Yet when we look back and consider the various forms of entertainment that different centuries have preferred, there really is very little that is new in the fascination of watching people live their lives. We may claim that reality television is a modern phenomena but look at the entertainment favoured by the Romans? The Romans loved to watch gore and violence as well as historical interpretations and carefree entertainment. There were chariot races. These races were very intense, with some people being brutally murdered for the sake of entertainment. In fact, many of the races were held until the point of death. There were also gladiator fights which signified several different social aspects, such as slavery and the will imposed on the lower classes by the nobility. Gladiator fights took place in places called amphitheaters, which meant they could be flooded with water or sand to create different types of warfare. The allure of these fights was the violence and the escape from reality that was allowed during these battles.
When we watch YouTubers telling us about how they do their make-up, or showing us the brand new house that they have just moved into, we are catering to our inbuilt curious nature. There is actually a scientific reason for it; neoteny or the retention of childish features in the adult of a species. Curiosity is something which makes us seek out information, whether that be about people we will never meet, places we will never go or learning information that serves us no use whatsoever. Lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a characteristic of neoteny and this has worked so well for our species in enabling us to make important scientific discoveries. Also we should not lose sight of the fact that looking at what other people have, can make us aspirational, it can fuel jealousy but it can also make us feel better about our own lives. We should never ignore our own primitive desires either and these can be seen throughout history in the love of chariot-races, pantomimes and being entertained.
So, the next time you’re watching someone on YouTube demonstrating how they managed to spend a hundred pounds in PoundWorld on utter tat, just think of that. In watching this you are giving into your primal urges and enabling the human race to constantly evolve and discover new things. Well, that’s my excuse, anyway.