I wish I could be clever and write this like an anthropologist studying a newly discovered culture. I can’t pull it off, so I won’t even try. Still, I feel like I’ve spent this summer exploring several subcultures, so this is a field report of sorts.
I’ve spent most of my summer on YouTube. Doing the math, I think I’ve watched over 800 clips since the beginning of July. My netflix DVDs sit unwatched, my library books sit unread, and the TV sits neglected with the mute on. Before July, I thought YouTube was a random collection of videos that were too short to give you any kind of meaningful viewing experience. My computer was never fast enough to watch the videos without a pause to reload every few seconds. Then I got obsessed with General Hospital and found out that almost every scene with my favorite actor could be found somewhere on YouTube, dating back all the way to his first appearance in 1993. Of course, the soap opera videos go back further than that—I would guess as far back as the earliest VCR recordings made by fans. I used to think once a soap episode aired, it was history. It’s not as if old episodes of soaps get released on DVD like other TV series. I knew devoted fans taped their soaps, but I couldn’t believe people saved all those tapes, since I always ended up taping over my favorite programs or losing my tapes when I moved. Besides, soaps are on five hours a week! (That’s 43 tapes a year if you record on slow play.) The other thing I don’t really understand is why the clips are allowed on YouTube, with all the copyright violations that are involved. Music seems to be the only copyright that gets strenuously enforced on the site. I feel bad that the actor I like doesn’t get any royalties from these clips, and I feel like I ought to send him a few bucks every time I watch.
I’m still a little unclear on how all these videos get uploaded to YouTube. I guess people transfer the tapes to DVDs first and then rip them onto their computers. Ten minutes used to the the maximum clip length, but YouTube has just announced a new 15 minute upload maximum. My favorite features are the queue and the playlist. I can login to my free account, search for a bunch of clips, quickly add them to my queue, and then build a permanent playlist of my selected clips. The autoplay feature means my queue or playlist just keeps on rolling until I need a break. Queues and playlists are crucial when watching YouTube on TV with a blu-ray player. Without them, you’d be wasting all your time trying to type into the search field with the remote control. With all these great features, I wish YouTube didn’t bury the instructions for using them on their website. I stumbled across these features by accident and learned to use them by trial and error.
Ironically, it’s the new technology that creates my biggest YouTube headache. Television used to broadcast programs in a square format (sorry, I don’t know all the technical terms here) but now there is the rectangular format of high-definition. When an older recording is uploaded in the HD format, without the aspect ratio being adjusted, the image gets stretched sideways and distorted. This does really strange things to faces, and it makes me a little seasick when I’m watching. The quality of the clips also varies a lot depending on the source material; night scenes are a muddle, blue eyes look black, and you can’t adjust the brightness/contrast or color balance on the computer media player.
There’s a nice little community of YouTube folks, and they’ve been very friendly and helpful. I have a growing list of subscriptions to different “channels, ” and I swap private messages with a couple of people who share some of my interests. One lady in Canada helps me find specific General Hospital clips and fills me in on background information.
Speaking of soaps and community, I’ve also been “hanging out” at a General Hospital fan forum, and it’s a genuine subculture. They have their own private lingo, which I’ve had to learn just to follow the conversations. They post fan fiction and fan art, and they take part in campaigns and online polls, trying to influence the guy who writes the soap. (The poor fellow seems universally despised for turning this daytime soap into a Sopranos ripoff.) They are passionate about their commitment to their favorite “ship” (a couple in a relationship, or two characters who they want to see get together as a couple. “Ship” can also be used as a verb, but I can’t manage that yet!). I’m a real lightweight, since I’m a new fan who enjoys the show without many years of history with the characters. I’m not into fan fiction at this point, but I have been making banners for my forum signature in photoshop. I’m getting pretty good at it, too.
Soon, a new season of television begins, and perhaps I will turn off the computer more often. If the weather ever improves here in San Francisco, I may even go outside to play. Until then, you’ll find me at YouTube.