Friday, April 1, 2011

Incivility and its Discontents—In Defense of Rebecca Black

Sigmund FreudImage by wordscraft via FlickrSigmund Freud’s monograph Civilization and Its Discontents claims that humanity remains doomed to unhappiness because, to function, society creates rules constraining our desires.  Civilization must act to prevent incest, murder, and violent theft of power.  All rules, religions, and social philosophies exist to prevent humans indulging our animal natures; but, because we frustrate ourselves, we can never know complete fulfillment.

Rebecca Black posted her music video “Friday” to YouTube on February 10th, 2011, and for the first month, it went virtually unnoticed.  Black recorded the song on a lark, and both the song and its video were a labor of love for Black, her family, and several friends.  Like most homebrew YouTube videos, nobody watched it but the people who appeared in it.

Then in the week following March 11th, the song went from 3000 views to 18 million after Daniel Tosh mocked it on his blog.  Since then it has continued to grow.  When I viewed it, its viewer count approached 67 million, and since I write well before deadline, when you see it, the numbers will probably reach much higher.

Admittedly, I dislike the song.  The inane lyrics (“Kickin’ in the front seat, sittin’ in the back seat / Gotta make my mind up, which seat can I take?”) and throbbing pop-rap leave me cold.  The video looks like somebody bought a tricked out camcorder and took it for a spin.  But I’m not in her target audience.  Like Britney Spears, Rebecca Black records for kids her own age who like sugary pop songs.  Adult standards don’t apply.

But some people refuse to steer clear of what doesn’t belong to them.  Satirists have recorded covers, some with seeming respect, others with open derision.  Like teen idols worldwide, Black—who is thirteen years old—draws more than her share of disdain from adults who treat kids as essentially colonies for adult values.

Some people aren’t content to stop there.

YouTube’s comment feature is its greatest virtue and its greatest risk.  Student filmmakers, actors, musicians, and other artists present their work to get meaningful feedback.  Some people have answered Black with constructive comments; some viewers call the song danceable, and Black herself both promising and beautiful.

But whenever people share ideas and viewpoints without censorship, especially when they share anonymously, they risk flaming.  Following Black’s commenters would be more than a full-time job, since at peak hours, more than thirty comments roll in per minute.  And they have been overwhelmingly negative, even spiteful.  Consider, for instance:

I want to punch her in the face.  Her parents bought her whole music career and it's pathetic.

At least that one comments on the music, even if injuriously.  More important, it exemplifies the tone of many comments.  Threats run rampant:

she needs 2 get hit by a Bus!!!!!!

if rebecca ever gets raped im sure we will all know it was the usher wanna be

The “usher wanna be” is co-writer Patrice Wilson, who delivers a brief rap near the end.  Many comments threaten sexual violence against Black—who, again, is only thirteen years old.  I will not repeat the most telling comments, which are too vile for a general-interest blog.  At least, despite their revolting attitude, these comments were coherent.  Some become so addled with rage that they devolve into free association:

What the big ass shit piss slut bad fuck

Some commenters, unsatisfied with attacking Black, turn their vitriol on other viewers:

The people who are thumbing down are the smart ones
The people who are thumbing up are faggots.

Britney Spears attracted similar contempt with her first single, “Baby One More Time.”  I confess to dropping disparaging comments.  But in 1998, the Web remained very asymmetrical.  The read-write Web 2.0 hadn’t dawned yet.  This left the “information economy” lopsided, but prevented certain unacceptable behaviors.

Perhaps comedic derision from Daniel Tosh and Conan O’Brien provides a shield.  If TV stars can openly mock a child, people may think, my comments won’t hurt much.  But these comments display mob mentality.  When anonymous Internet handles permit people to issue death threats and walk away, something has gone deeply, seriously wrong.

Social networks like LinkedIn and FaceBook demand users identify themselves by name, and not coincidentally, lynch mob behavior is extremely rare.  When users feel free to attack children under the aegis of anonymity, society’s rules collapse.  YouTube users’ vile threats to attack, violate, and kill Black don’t just threaten her.

I fear we’re seeing a glimpse of what happens when civilization fails.
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1 comment:

  1. Well said. I've thought for a number of years now that pervasive anonymity has become a vitriolic acid eating away at our shared humanity. The Internet is, in some ways, still a 'frontier town', where the niceties we've come to expect from more 'civilized' locales are often absent. Even on Facebook, the perceived abstraction of virtual vs face-to-face communications has resulted in the suicides of a disturbing number of children... Leading me to wonder, if we're not better than this, if we cannot rise above such base behavior, perhaps civilization is failing.