When my editor asked me to do a review of Sydney Uni’s vloggers, I did not hesitate: a free swing at some ‘neolib grifters’ and the ability to publicly assert my own cultural superiority — the perfect Honi article! Open up the thesaurus, throw in a few screenshots and some suitably spiteful similes, and we’d be doing numbers. However, after spending a concerning amount of time in the vlogging vortex, it appears, dear Honi reader, that the joke is on us. Wittingly or not, USyd’s vloggers, in their extraordinary dullness, have successfully exploited a medium well adapted to the zeitgeist.
Oscar Wilde wrote that “the only [youtubers] I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad [youtubers]…A really great [youtuber] is the most unpoetical of all creatures, perfectly uninteresting.” Tediousness must thus be regarded as the principal tenet of the personal vlogging form. The Academic Hacker (763 subscribers) reveals that he is “going home to eat some leftovers.” Now we see our protagonist microwaving his duck. The eating perhaps could have been implied, but we are treated to a time lapse, just to be on the safe side. Sebastian Pirie (21k subscribers) gives us an exclusive insight into his morning routine. If you wish to avoid spoilers, look away — it involves weet-bix and teeth-brushing. Ginny (173 subscribers) makes the vital cultural contribution of a lengthy PoV shot of a turkey sandwich as it is carried through the law library. The inanity goes on interminably, but it will suffice to say that I am now intimately acquainted with the advanced principles of desk organisation. The vloggers make few stylistic commitments – their only editing tricks are the slap-the-camera cut and the eating-a-sandwich-while-studying timelapse. The music is always that anonymous upbeat tropical pop which only appears elsewhere as the backing to dodgy youtube sports highlights. Unless, of course, you are the ex-Pauline Dylan Reeves-Fellows (41k subscribers), who utilises his self-described “clean, crisp and fresh” voice to deliver rambling monologues on topics such as “I Failed a Third Year Economics Exam” and “Beef with my Supervisor.” It is easy to poke fun these vloggers, but they are racking up thousands of views (and probably a few bucks) for turkey sandwich sequences – they have clearly tapped into something.
Lying in the youtube borehole, the daily vlog operates on the same principles as social media’s Infinite Scroll, Netflix, online polemic and pornography: they are essentially numbing, providing a means to pass the time safe from the intrusions of thought, action and unpleasant emotion. Ross Douthat identifies polemic and pornography as genres which “dominate online….because both are ideally suited for a click-here-then-there medium, in which the important thing is to be titillated, stimulated, get your spasm of pleasure, and move on.” However, in gravitating towards polemic and pornography, it is not titillation and pleasure which is sought, rather it is an avoidance of pain and embarrassment. Pornography never dished up heartbreak or humiliation. Online polemic is a safe version of actual debate – the satisfaction of winning over a physical audience can be replaced with push notifications, and one is insulated from humiliation in the face of rebuttal by a phalanx of like-minded followers.
We can take this theme of emotional avoidance further. The Netflix binge is not pleasurable, but it distracts us and safely passes the time. It does, however, require some investment in plot and character. The social media scroll is more numbing, but one’s social life can make unfortunate intrusions here. Finally, we arrive at the humble vlog. It demands no emotional investment in character, there is no plot to follow, and, crucially, nothing at all happens. Hours can be whiled away without the intrusion of any thought, let alone dangerous ones, as one substitutes the complexities of one’s own real life for the ordered and logical structure of the vlog, which does not permit emotion to enter in its endless repetition of eating, commuting and studying scenes. Thus, we come back to Wilde: “the greatest [youtubers] are the most uninteresting.” Witness classics such as “Real Time Study with Me for Eight Hours” and “Eight Hour Study with Me: Medical Student Edition.”
The genius of USyd’s vloggers is that they combine tedium with aspiration. As one lies in bed at two in the afternoon eating a sandwich (no timelapse) and watching vloggers opine on the benefits of the Pomodoro Method, we can convince ourselves that, yes, we will wake up earlier next time, we will organise our desk and we will start studying — right after this vlog. Or perhaps the next one. By projecting an image of organisation, efficiency and academic competence without the intrusion of life’s complexities and complications, our vloggers have wedded our desire to be numbed with the impulse to grift and grind which is so prevalent in contemporary student culture. For a student population which has rejected the ‘titillation, stimulation and pleasure spasms’ of Manning in favour of Ritalin and cereal cafes, the vlog, in all its tediousness, is an ideal form of expression.
Thus, we should not be so quick to cringe and laugh at our vloggers. After all, I’ve just written this rather overwrought opus for free, while others are out there making dollars by filming their turkey sandwiches.