Monday, April 14, 2008

Online Satire - Walkley Magazine Article

The following is a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote for the Walkley Magazine. I was meant to be writing about my own experience for an audience unfamiliar with the subject matter, so please forgive any apparent hubris, or statements of the obvious.

On March 5 last year, like thousands of others, ParkRidge47 posted a video on YouTube. “Vote Different”, which placed Hillary Clinton as the Big Brother figure in Apple’s famous “1984” commercial, would soon receive worldwide attention heralding the birth of a new type of political campaign. Philip de Vellis, the man behind the ParkRidge47 alias, had taken footage from a Clinton video, inviting viewers to be part of an online conversation, and had composited it into Ridley Scott’s original ad. “Vote Different” did indeed start a conversation, but certainly not the one the Clinton campaign would have wanted. The very advances in personal computing, typified by the original Apple ad, had enabled anyone with basic editing software to take part in this new dialogue of online, user-generated satire.



Six months later, on a lazy Saturday, hungover and with nothing better to do, I sat myself in front of my 2-year-old PC. Having jotted down phrases like “similar difference”, “earnestness offensive” and “lustrous glass jaw” while bored in a Theories of Legal Reasoning Class, I set about piecing together “Chairman Rudd’s Propaganda Philosophies”. I’d taught myself some basic editing a couple of years earlier, enough to play around with home videos and to produce an unsuccessful Tropfest entry. Using a Chinese history film I’d found in Hong Kong and whatever footage I could scrounge from the internet, the video was done within the day. On the Sunday morning, I uploaded it to YouTube, emailed it to a few friends, posted it on Facebook and didn’t think too much more of it. A week later, the video had been seen 50,000 times, Michael Brissenden had actually said “earnestness offensive” and my voting intentions had been splashed across the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Chairman Rudd” was seized upon as a reflection of the nascent guerilla campaign being waged on YouTube. The online political efforts of citizen satirists and bloggers far outstripped those of the political parties throughout the 2007 campaign. The YouTube channels of the Liberals and the ALP provided an array of videos ranging from the mediocre to the ludicrous. There was something compellingly weird and desperate in the sight of John Howard announcing funding for orangutans or Wayne Swan offering stunningly banal advice on grocery prices (items on sale are cheaper). Mainly, though, the parties used YouTube as a mere repository for television advertisements. In the meanwhile, user-generated videos like “Bennelong Time”, an anti-Howard screed set to Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”, and other videos too feral, too unpolished or just too weird to be seen on television were spreading organically through blogs, emails and social networking sites. The very amateurish and irreverent nature of these videos provided a great part of their appeal, a fact which the political parties failed to grasp.



Some of the more hyperbolic accounts of this phenomenon suggest that the internet is enervating a previously apathetic generation, re-engaging young people with the politics. The reality, I suspect, is more nuanced. It is worth remembering that the internet user who seeks out political satire is likely to be politically active and have relatively strong convictions already. The greater value of the internet lies in its ability to overcome the tyranny of geography, the physical boundaries which separate the politically engaged. The sheer speed with which videos leap from blog to blog, country to country, is breathtaking.

Again, though, it is possible to overstate the reach of the internet. I find it both bemusing and sobering to think that one of my most viewed videos is one of my worst. A few weeks before I made the Chairman Rudd video, someone at Endemol Southern Star inexplicably decided that another of my videos, “NetAlert Ad Parody – The Treasurer”, ought to be shown on Channel Ten’s thankfully short-lived Friday Night Download. In that one airing on a failing TV show, the video received hundreds of thousands more views than will ever be received by much more deserving online satire. Aside from those relatively few videos, like “Vote Different”, which receive wide coverage in the mainstream media, most videos will only go out only to a few hundred or a few thousand people online. It is still the case that the political satire seen on shows like The Chaser’s War on Everything in Australia, or The Colbert Report in the U.S. has a reach and a quality which dwarfs that of online satire. This is not to say that user-generated satire can’t achieve a similar power, it is simply to recognise that the form is still in its infancy.



While online satire will undoubtedly continue to grow, I suspect that an equally significant though less well recognised revolution is occurring in the availability and popularity of raw news material. It is not really that surprising that a well-produced video like Will.i.am’s pro-Obama “Yes We Can” music video, or brilliant satire like “Vote Different” races around the online community. What is more impressive is that Barack Obama’s thirty four minute speech at a church in Atlanta can become the most popular video on YouTube. Internet users no longer need to settle for the 15 second grabs of television news. Online debate reflects this new reality. Not long ago, a claim, however true, that a news report had taken a statement out of context would likely sound carping and be difficult to substantiate. In a world of hyperlinks, however, bloggers are constantly referring to full transcripts and videos to debate the rights and wrongs of media coverage. The availability and popularity of this raw news material is at least as significant as the production of satirical content by the online community. Both phenomena reflect an unwillingness for political parties or large media organisations to dictate political discourse.

It is now over a year since “Vote Different” emerged and the Clinton campaign has long since abandoned its conversation conceit (EDIT: apparently not), censoring or blocking comments on its videos. Now, though, the release of a new campaign commercial is inevitably followed by a cascade of online parodies of varying quality. In Australia, the realm of online satire has quietened a little, a respite following the intensity of the election campaign. Yet, with editing software becoming more widespread and easy-to-use every day, it remains to be seen how the Australian political parties will be able to deal with the brave new world of citizen satire and online debate.

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