Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How We Talk About Ourselves (and Music, too): A Conversation with Sad YouTube's Mark Slutsky

At Sad YouTube, Mark Slutsky haunts the comments threads of YouTube music videos, finding in that endless stream of memories, reactions, and confessions a certain 21st Century noise: anonymous or semi-anonymous people virtually gathering around random videos, talking of their own pasts and their own ways into the song. The result is a kind of prismatic doorway that opens onto nearly endless interpretations of, and narratives about, music. Slutsky is a curator of the melancholy, an archivist of the nostalgic. If YouTube is how we listen to music today, it's also how we talk about ourselves in relation to that music.

In a terrific, must-read essay about his site at Buzzfeed, Slutsky writes, "The YouTube comment section has long been considered the worst place on the internet. You won’t find much consensus about anything online, but one thing pretty much everyone can agree on—including, seemingly, the people at YouTube itself—is that the user-generated content beneath practically every video is a semi-literate cesspool. But for the last year I’ve been increasingly discovering—thanks in part to a longer-than-usual lull in employment—that everyone was wrong." He continues:
Dig deep into comments—particularly on pop songs—and you’ll see that buried beneath the hate speech, the poorly formulated insults, and the Obama conspiracy theories are countless amazing nuggets of humanity. You’ll find stories of love and loss, perfectly crystallized moments of nostalgia and saudade (a Portuguese word meaning an ineffable longing for something lost in time). [See below.] It’s a repository of memories, stories, and dreams, an accidental oral history of American life over the last 50 years written by the site’s millions of visitors every day.
"But like all memories," Slutsky notes, "it’s ephemeral. Chunks of it disappear every day, when a video is deleted or pulled for copyright reasons, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t entirely evaporate when someday Google decides to revamp or 'sunset' the comments section. Recently, Google introduced an overhaul of the system, integrating the comments more deeply with its Google+ social network—changes that are already unbalancing the strange, delicate ecosystem that produces a rare diamond among the thousands of useless or repetitive comments."

Autobiography as comment. Memoir as thread. The personal in a deletable window. Here are a few, recent posts:

Recently, I virtually sat down with Slutsky to discuss Sad YouTube, his favorite comments, memory, and the cultural value of nostalgia.


How did the idea for the site come? Was there a crystallizing moment? How long have you been running the site?

For a long time, I had noticed that there was something...else going on in the YouTube comment section. Something besides the usual racism, insults, obscure shout-outs and general noise. Particularly on videos of old songs (either legitimate music videos or fan-uploaded audio tracks with slide shows or home-made clips accompanying the music), people had been leaving little stories. Memories they associated with the music, stories with such touching specificity and seeming honesty that they stood out among all the other comments. It intrigued, and honestly, delighted me in a perverse way, that in that part of the Internet universally acknowledged as the garbage heap of our civilization, I was finding such moments of beauty.

I knew that these comments were ephemeral; they'd either be driven so far down the page by the "bad" ones that no one would ever find them, or the video they were associated with would be deleted—either way, they'd be lost. So I started Sad YouTube in the fall of 2012 to preserve them.

You write, "I almost feel like you could write a Studs Terkel oral history of America culled entirely from YouTube comments on pop songs." That's fascinating. Could you talk a bit about that? What's the value of an oral history? What can it capture or dramatize that others documents cant?

There's a truth to oral histories that you don't find anywhere else. You get stories, details and emotions you don't find in any other form of history. Very few of the comments I've chosen tell stories significant or dramatic enough, at least from the outside, to make it into the news, let alone the history books. But each one conveys something about what it felt like to be alive at the time. Or what it feels like to be alive at all.

You write, "What I look for are comments that tell a whole story in just a few lines—a picture emerging from several quick brushstrokes. Comments that bring a specific moment to life that would have otherwise just dissolved forever in time." Do you have a favorite comment, a comment that most memorably "tells a whole story in a few lines"?

I'll give you a few examples. What strikes me about these comments, and every comment I choose for the blog, is how much they're able to communicate with just a few specific details:

Slowdrive, "Crazy For You"
Bobby Goldsboro, "Honey”
Joni Mitchell, "Help Me"
What is the cultural value of nostalgia?

What I find so compelling about many of these memories is how spontaneous they seem. Meaning, favourite memories can often be gilded by our recall of them, subtly altered every time we think of them, resembling less and less the original moment. But so many of the stories I find in YouTube comments seem to have laid dormant in the commenters' minds until triggered unexpectedly by hearing an old song. In that way they feel refreshingly direct, un-romanticized. I think that sets them subtly apart from what we think of as "nostalgia," although they are no less emotional for it. I actually prefer the Portuguese word "saudade," which, roughly, means an ineffable yearning for something irretrievably lost.

How were people sharing these kinds of memories and conversing about them before YouTube?

I think people have always shared their memories—in conversation, in blogs, memoirs, etc. Many, if not most, of my commenters do not seem to be professional or even amateur writers, but the YouTube comment platform gives them the freedom to express themselves with some degree of anonymity. This opens up the conversation to people who might not even realized they had a story to tell.

You write about what's gained—emotionally and culturally—in the YouTube Comments section; what's lost in our digital age?

It might be too soon to tell what we're losing, besides the obvious things like adequately-paying jobs in the cultural sector. What concerns me the most when I work on Sad YouTube is preserving all the memories that would almost certainly been lost among the detritus of the comment section. I think about some of the stories I've found in there—the way they're worded and the emotions they express—almost every day. They mean a lot to me.

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