The meme generation

Pub date May 25, 2010
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm Features

VIDEO We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes …

YouTube is five. In his latest video, Chris Crocker prefaces his birthday wish for the site that effectively birthed him by announcing that he’s speaking as someone who is “part of YouTube history.” This moment of historical self-consciousness seems odd coming from Crocker, whose métier has been the in-the-moment double-blitzkrieg of unmediated emotional outpouring and laser-guided queeniness. If anything, Crocker has refined his androgynous self-presentation and ADD-addled delivery. More important, he has lived to tell. He is a part of YouTube history who seems to have come out the other side of the meme machine with some perspective, in addition to an increased “media profile.”

We’ve got five years, what a surprise …

“I hope YouTube will become more and more like the community it was in ’06 and ’07 (you all know what I mean),” Crocker says. I don’t really know what he means, but he goes on to lament how “corporate” YouTube has become. In the video’s intro note, Crocker writes, “Now with all of the corporate channels, and the constant YouTube FAVORITES featured and on the Popular list, It feels nearly impossible to be heard unless your video is featured or on a popular blog site.” Crocker’s idyllic evocation of “community” is offset by the whiff of sour grapes that his criticism gives off, but I also think he’s getting at something that’s as tangible as it is ridiculous-sounding: YouTube has become a more jaded and self-conscious medium than ever.

We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot …

The codes are known for those who want their 15 seconds on YouTube’s front page (and the subsequent gimlet-eyed post from Gawker). YouTube stars are now self-manufactured, no longer born to be discovered. This is a postlapsarian world in which, within a matter of days, “experts” are already raising suspicion that Greyson Chance — the 12 year-old Oklahoman whose show-stopping rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” has launched him on the path to become Bieber 2.0 — could be the product of canny media manipulation. Then again, is the question “Is he for real?” even relevant in the context of YouTube?

We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got.

I asked myself both questions when I watched PhatGayKID’s videos. PhatGayKID is the username of Jonnie, another extremely effeminate, young white gay man whose videos are starting to get attention from blogs. Slightly chubby and armed with a giggle that could cut shatter glass, Jonnie — who warbles out numbers from Glee and Ke$ha in the oblivious soprano of Florence Foster Jenkins — could be anywhere from 16 to 30 years old (his profile says 20). He claims to live in Beverly Hills and that his friends and family tell him he’s “way too good for American Idol!” Comments are sharply divided between homophobic dismissal and enraptured validation. Then there are those, like me, who wonder about Jonnie.

Jonnie’s mannerisms and delivery seem too perfect and canny a distillation of the kind of fan performances that now comprise one of YouTube’s most prolific genres – a style of performance that, thanks to someone like Chris Crocker, has become codified in certain ways. Both Crocker and Jonnie are naturals at hiding their deep self-awareness of what they’re doing. But Crocker’s accumulated performance of “Chris Crocker” came out of the offline hell of being young, gay, and irrepressibly femme in a small, Southern town (memorably dubbed “Real Bitch Island”). I don’t know much about Jonnie’s life, except that for someone who’s only just getting started he’s already welcoming “business inquiries” on his channel’s home page. Slog, the blog of Seattle weekly The Stranger, posted one of Jonnie’s videos under the title “Trying to Go Viral,” and a clip of Jonnie was used in SkunkPost’s satiric video made in the wake of Chance’s overnight success, “How to make it big using YouTube in five easy steps.” Regardless of who Jonnie actually is, and what exactly it is that he’s performing, he is committing one of the venal sins of YouTube: trying too hard.