From Napster to YouTube: A Vortex of Norm Violation


Since studying (or beating assaulted by) Rick Parmentier’s semiotic class, I’ve been looking at world very semiotically. My projects are usually talking about the process of signing, processes of meaning making, or multivalence in presence. This has had a MAJOR impact on my interests in media especially, with some of the publications I’m finishing now on Cold War Fetishism in Popular Cinema, Musical Instruments and Sound Studies, and this new project I jumped onto very quickly (patent pending).

I’m interested in how we find the aesthetic of YouTube acceptable. You can look back in this blog (or maybe it was another) to see my writing on the way piracy has lent itself to an aesthetic outlook (similar to what Brian Larkin says in Signal and Noise), which has resulted in a movie coming out in late 2009 (can’t remember the title) that is about the end of the world as it’s captured through YouTube. So, how did we get there?

I believe it starts with Napster and various p2p music sites. Those of us who may have known people with albums that were obtained in such a way that shall go unmentioned know that these albums sounded terrible. We weighed the aesthetic vs. the functional. The function was social, and didn’t rely on the aesthetic as much as the possession, so we learned to get over the digitized low quality mp3. Those of you who remember those days can safely say that you know what a digital artifact sounds like. As time progressed, the quality grew, but never up to the standards of a directly (fresh) burnt CD.

As time passed, the “underground” sound became “cool”. I would partially blame it for what we have now in terms of audio quality from friendly neighborhood Emo bands. (not that I have anything against emo, but as an audiophile, I can tell you recorded it with a couple radio shack mics and a 4 channel sound board). The degraded audio quality was thus acceptable because it came to stand for something. It was a sign of a sign- a metasign– in the sense that Augustine of Hippo gets at. St. Augustine is one of the earliest to realize that while “run” functionally operates as a verb, the concept of run is itself a noun as is the the word itself. So, while the bad audio quality is an audio artifact, it is also a social marker of reality. It was a sign of a sign of authenticity.

As time passed camcorders and digital cameras came into use, but never caught on outside of the family structure (for the most part). Then, along came YouTube. What made YouTube big? Why does it keep going? I can’t say, but we can ask Mike Wesch, one of the top media anthropologists out there as we speak. Howard Rheingold also has a lot to contribute.

The point I’d like to make is that Napster made YouTube aesthetically possible. If we think of the great Tartufian semiotician Mukarovsky, and his idea of aesthetic norms, it all makes sense. Mukarovsky believed that society’s (abstract) art operated on a system of norms and variations. The way that aesthetic change happens is through the inability to perfectly adhere to an aesthetic norm, so things change and become canon slowly. What this approach fails to recognize, as does structural Saussurian semiotics, is that there is a world outside the communicative system that has direct influence on the system itself. Thus, I introduce the concept of a VORTEX of aesthetic norms.

Napster’s terrible audio quality gave us the thick skin to deal with poor media quality for the sake of status bearing information. Without said thick skin, we would never be able to accept the low visual quality of YouTube, or so I think. To account for the outside world, we also must consider the inverse relationship between size of technology and quality of output. In a social world where we came to value portability and “real” time, the smaller device won out, and the quality outside came to slip. We can also extend a round of applause to movies like Blair Witch Project.

So there is the basis of this new publication, but my argument is much more nuanced in the other. Napster’s bad audio quality made for the norm violation of media quality for status-bearing information, and YouTube’s poor visual (and audio) quality could not have been socially acceptable had we not learned to get over the original poor signal transfer. Now we have pop-cinema being driven by YouTube aesthetics. It’s a medium I don’t see Michael Bay playing with…it relies on stories as opposed to special effects.

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