October 2, 2009
Thoughts on Kseniya Simonova's Sand Animation

I originally had another topic planned for this article, but I decided haphazardly to change it at the last minute, because one video made such an impression on me yesterday morning.

My morning routine consists of a few primary objectives, one of which is to browse my Twitter stream to find anything of note or something missed during the night. I noticed that Henry had posted a link to a YouTube video late Wednesday night under the guise of:

Susan Boyle's Legacy?: Winning performance from Ukraine's Got Talent has Drawn more than 2 Million views. http://bit.ly/zDFFT

The link sent me to the video embedded below. While the clip lasts 8 minutes and 33 seconds, I highly recommend taking the time to watch through the entire video. This is storytelling at its finest.

The astounding ability of a hand to shape a story is purely evidenced by Kseniya's work. It's simply awe-inspiring at how simple movements of addition and subtraction, how curves and lines and cuts can craft such simple yet refined art. I find it more beautiful because the scenes flow and crash (literally) into each other. Metaphors become real images. After the planes enter the scene, at 1:47 Simonova scrambles the bench-sitting couple into a blur of sand, a blur that represents fear, but a physical swirl that becomes the scared face of the female onlooker. When the bombs hit at 3:08, Simonova throws a handful of dust onto the baby, eliminating him symbolically and literally from the picture.

This video represents a piece of wondrous art and fanciful storytelling. And by the posting of this article, it has probably reached over 3 million views on YouTube. After the jump, I'll examine some more implications that this video presents about YouTube, transmedia, and cross-platform distribution; how we explain our understanding of popularity online; and how the Internet complicates our comprehension of foreign cultures.

A Screen in a Screen in a Screen
YouTube, Transmedia, and Cross-Platform Distribution

When we discuss transmedia at the Consortium, one concept we tend to explain more than once is that the abbreviated term "transmedia" ultimately refers to the more distinct idea of "transmedia storytelling": a set of narrative structures that spans multiple mediums but creates a comprehensive story. The Matrix has always been a good example: the movies can stand alone, but the plot continues (and informs an understanding of the larger, overarching story) in The Animatrix (animated shorts) and Enter the Matrix (multi-platform video game).

Although transmedia seems to connote trans (across) and media (mediums), transmedia does not in essence mean cross-platform distribution, or publishing the same content across different mediums (eg., a film in theaters appears on television). However, we do not ignore cross-platform distribution and still commend smart attempts to innovate in the field.

Personally, I find the aesthetics of cross-platform distribution fascinating, especially now in an era when content appears on almost all media (sometimes even unintentionally, such as when BitTorrent allows you to watch near-anything on your computer screen). Does it matter that camps of audience members can watch a television show on Youtube, but at a different quality from that originally produced? How does the difference in aesthetics affect their consumption of the content? Or, we might go further and ask, does unintentional cross-platform distribution affect how we perceive art?

I ask this last question because Simonova's video evokes it. Watching her sand animation, we are in fact watching a television show (Ukraine's Got Talent) on YouTube, at a much different screen ratio and quality level. But there's another screen: the audience members for the television show are watching the performance on a projection screen. So for those viewers watching from the computer, they experience the art inside a set of multiple screens. Being removed from the performance -- and here, multiple removals of table to screen to television set to YouTube -- changes the performance.

These aesthetics do not appear to be well-studied in academic circles at the moment. The reason, perhaps: We're concerned not with the quality of the video, but just the fact that we can watch it.

More Views Than You
How We Tend to Understand Popularity Online

Besides the fact that Henry outright decided to post the link at all to his Twitter feed, I will admit that what originally enticed me to click on Simonova's video was Henry's one-line explanation:

Susan Boyle's Legacy?: Winning performance from Ukraine's Got Talent has Drawn more than 2 Million views

Given that I've been immersed in Internet culture for more than enough years now, I have come across a host of videos that boast much more than 2 million views. The more intriguing element of Henry's message, then, was the phrase "Susan Boyle's Legacy," which seems to suggest some sort of Susan Boyle-swayed aftermath that has influenced YouTube users to watch a lot of (insert nation)'s Got Talent shows. Whatever Henry meant, there's a vague metaphor or correlation that relates Susan Boyle's unexpected and astoundingly-high statistics 5 months ago with Simonova's recent growth.

For some reason, my impression is that the general understanding of popularity on YouTube equates to: any video that receives over a million views is popular. Probably true (especially since there has always been a strange obsession with one million). Of course, in theory, we are conflating popularity with pageviews, and these pageviews rely on a vague algorithm of how many people watch the video more than once, how long a person watches the video to count it as a "view," etc.

But Susan Boyle's success literally exploded. As Simonova's video slowly reaches 3 million views, Boyle's currently sits at over 76 million. And Simonova's video has been on YouTube since the beginning of June. If my memory serves me correctly, Boyle's video surpassed 5 million views in the first week.

So, does Henry's initial comment on Simonova's video merely represent a witty title? Or does it inform a larger discussion about the movement of ideas online? Henry has written previously about the (poor) value of using the word "viral" and "memes" when talking about the potential for an idea to move between users online (Henry uses the term spreadability). But what happens when a general audience doesn't make it to those terms, instead relying on the most immediate and apparent marker of popularity: view counts?

This might be only a theory, but I believe that the discrepancy of view counts between Boyle's and Simonova's videos reflects certain aspects of the audience, both those of television and YouTube. As YouTube remains a primarily English-language community, I assume that much of the audience watching America's Got Talent or Britain's Got Talent online overlaps with the English-speaking television audience in both countries. However, looking at the 4,000 comments on Simonova's video, about half (or even more) are written in Cyrillic. Comparing the size of the two linguistic communities online, English is larger, which probably accounts for the ease of spreadability for Boyle's video across YouTube and other networks. Of course, Simonova's video might be picked up quickly in the English-language community; however, it will probably not see the success of Boyle's performance.

The Audience Weeps
Consuming Foreign Media, Ignorance of Foreign Context

Simonova's performance is passionate and moving, plain and simple. The video, though, tends to lend a few emotional cues throughout the piece, and I'm not talking about the music. At least 4 times in the eight and a half minutes, the camera looks out to audience members and judges, to focus on the tears trickling down their cheeks.

After seeing those tears, I wonder if I'm missing something. Here's a video that fits a very foreign context (though contained in a very familiar game-show format), depicting a similarly foreign history: life during the Great Patriotic War in the USSR during World War II. The music sounds ethnically sympathetic and clearly helps shape the emotions of the performance. But are these images, these sounds, and apparently these memories not approachable from my early-millennium, American background?

In the past, I have had to debate a comparable conflict with the anime fandom and fansubs (fan-produced subtitles). Consuming a foreign media intended for a specific audience (Japanese), do American (or other non-Japanese) fans understand everything without experience in the intended audience's culture? The fansubbing community has attempted to reconcile this ignorance/inexperience of Japanese culture by contributing liner notes during the animated show or movie -- but there has also been backlash against taking such actions. The anime industry in America has even tried to adapt their releases to suit a more American audience, by changing jokes or references that rely on knowledge of Japanese culture to instead relate to more American ones. One hilarious example of this cultural camouflage is represented in this YouTube video, where the Japanese rice ball, or onigiri, is substituted with "chocolate-chip muffin."

But what do we do when faced with a piece of media that illustrates a foreign culture, especially when we don't receive any help from an informed source? I'm not quite so sure myself. But these conflicts are everywhere on the Internet today. I hope to approach this topic once again in a future article about the continuing development of online subcultures based on geography and language.

Remember, you can contact Alex at aleavitt@mit.edu, or leave a comment below.