Sean K. Cureton

To Subscribe, Or Unsubcribe

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on October 19, 2014 at 11:01 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Please Subscribe (2012)
Directed by Dan Dobi
Netflix Rating: Hated It

Please Subscribe is a documentary that attempts to validate and legitimize a whole generation of entertainers that have sprung up within the last half decade, with very little to no real world experience in the entertainment industry, their only claim to fame, or at least a very poor assimilation of it, being the innate charisma of their respective personalities, which they have been able to project at such an amplified volume that their individually created content is passed around the web like a virus, hence the term “viral video.” These content creators, in case you hadn’t already guessed by now, are the more successful YouTube personalities, whose individual “channels” generate them upwards of 100,000 subscribers at the very least, and sometimes, in the case of your Jenna Marbles or Shay Carl, over one million subscribers, and counting. Directed by Dan Dobi, the documentary features interviews from a total of nine YouTube stars, each with their own respective modicum of success and talent, some with a little more or less of each. While Dobi’s intentions are good, and his subject is one that should indeed be examined more closely, and with a greater amount of accolade awarded to those few who are able to make genuinely interesting and creative content for the ever expanding digital realm of instantly accessible entertainment, the film fails to approach subjects who are even mildly able to defend what it is that they’re doing, betraying themselves for the lost generation that they are so consistently labeled as being by their elders and the larger conglomerates within the entertainment and news industries. While a few of the featured stars are genuinely entertaining, technically skilled, and intelligent, the vast majority of Dobi’s individually selected subjects appear immature and without genuine talent, sheltered by a medium that is regressively self-isolating, allowing for any accolade given them online to be translated by the recipient as validation of an innately self-serving and solipsistic vocation, perpetuating and sustaining the Generation Me mythos to the detriment of themselves, their fans, and their entire generation. While the significant monetary success, earned via direct sponsored partnerships with YouTube itself, has enabled and validated these internet celebrities to a certain extent, allowing them to continue to create content for the fastest growing entertainment site on the web world wide, with both financial and professional stability, the social status of these new cultural stars begs to be questioned, without the self-aggrandizing, agro-apologetics on display in Dobi’s film, which only serves to underline some of the worst and most mediocre aspects of this still very young artistic medium.

The most egregious error Dobi makes in his approach towards instilling the YouTube community with some much needed professionalism and artistic credibility is his assumption, and rhetorical premise, that subscription statistics equate to genuine talent, monetary and professional success a mere side effect of what must first and foremost be an already necessary and vital source of creative content. However, as is the case with over half of his subjects, who will not be specifically named in order to negate what would otherwise come off as a personal attack on the individuals in question, many YouTube stars are, in point of fact, unemployable young adults, early to late 20 something’s who were lucky enough to catch on when YouTube was still young and in need of bankable stars, the sponsorships they have since maintained with the company the only “job” they’ve ever held, belying their respective immaturities and lack of professional, not to mention artistic, decorum. Many of these content creators started out making videos for themselves and a few friends, with little to no technical mastery over filmmaking or editing, their videos shot and distributed in a time when the now mass proliferation of web-based content from amateur documentarians and filmmakers was still relatively new, their continued success dependent upon the newness of the medium at the time when they started, allowing them to become corporatized establishments in the dissemination of cheap entertainment for the ever expanding digital generation, the molds from which future YouTube stars may now be measured, and hopefully improved upon. In taking his assumed hypothesis too far and too fast, Dobi’s film suffers from the very same adolescent exuberance that marks his subjects’ own shortcomings, rendering his film into a mere love letter to the form, instead of a well reasoned or thoughtful examination and defense of what is currently the most ephemeral, and therefore questionable, means of artistic expression currently being indulged in on a world wide scale. While the kinds of people who are making the very best content on the internet, with a few of them being rightfully featured in this documentary, have proven themselves valuable and talented in their efforts to find a voice amid a morass of pre-teen vloggers and cat videos, Dobi’s film does nothing to uplift them beyond easy stereotyping, bringing attention to the cultural currency of subscription statistics without unpacking what that currency means in our brave new world of digital media and entertainment.

Ultimately, those with the loudest voices will be heard, drowning out the smaller and more nuanced orators in a cacophony of bravado and unbridled exuberance, their personalities larger than life itself, but insubstantial and unmemorable in their emptiness of content, which might be the point, and is most definitely the instigator and source of their success and appeal. As is the case with a number of Dobi’s selected talents, many of YouTube’s biggest stars have earned their place among the ranks of professional amateurs via broad personalities and gimmick based sketches, at times profoundly funny, but always at a level of instant gratification, pandering to an audience raised on disposable entertainment, a quick chuckle more valuable and amenable to subscriptions and likes than a nervous titter that might give way to further thought and reflection, but ultimately lower subscription numbers and a couple of dislikes. Since YouTube is so tailor made for instant gratification and instinctual reaction, the most popular videos will always be those made to provoke and excite, with thumbnails that are eye-catching and purposefully misleading, generating video hits which are then translated to cultural currency and professional success, at least according to Dobi’s argument. All of this, however, is an example of why content creators who have taken to the internet to establish themselves within the past decade are so vehemently derided and held in contempt by a previous generation of writers, artists, and cultural critics who were raised on print and objectively quantifiable artistic output as a measure of one’s artistic identity and vitality. In a world where anyone can create anything and put it online for mass consumption, it becomes hard to distinguish what is truly great and what is actually mediocre, which is why YouTube is both a boon and a bane of the artistic community, providing a place to hone one’s craft, but hard to defend as a viable measure of individual merit and relevance, subscription statistics a distracting irrelevance when it comes to defining self-worth and establishing an aesthetic style.

The founding principles behind Dan Dobi’s Please Subscribe are noble and worthy of critical attention, from both the YouTube stars he chooses to focus on, as well as the viewers who continue to insure and compel said stars’ livelihood and creative output, uplifting their efforts to the realm of aesthetic expression and intrinsic beauty. Dobi’s assertion that what vloggers on YouTube, as well as any other content creators on the Internet, be they entertainers, artists, or critics, are doing is inherently valuable and holds artistic merit is an assertion that should be conceded to a certain degree, depending on a case to case basis, with various factors applied depending on the inherent value on display. What becomes clear from Dobi’s blindness, or at least an unwillingness to examine the factor more closely for the sake of an easier argument, to the tenuous nature of subscription statistics, which ultimately come down to the mood of the viewer in the heat of the moment, is that the ultimate authority in determining the quality of creative content on the Internet is up to the consumers themselves, our collective ability to subscribe or unsubscribe, like or dislike, share or ignore, favorite and retweet, the final determining factor for what will be seen and who will be heard. Before content creators on YouTube can even ask for their viewers to please subscribe, they need to explain why their viewers should subscribe, and hopefully in doing so find a voice for themselves that can transcend the form of the viral video itself, and reach the heights of self expression that Dobi feels that the digital medium is innately capable of doing. Please Subscribe has the right idea regarding the emergence of new voices in entertainment and culture online, but fails to produce an argument to make the still young artistic medium viable, leaving it up to the artists and YouTube stars themselves to make that argument for themselves through the output of their creative efforts, which is ultimately as it should be, the defining evidence of content being the content itself, and not the number of subscribers or the commercial corporatization of bankable, star personalities. So next time you watch a video on YouTube, or read an article on a self-published blog site, think about the worth of the content, the intent of the creator, and the cultural currency inherent in deciding to subscribe, or unsubscribe. Then click like.

Please Subscribe is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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