#164: Halcyon + On + On

Here’s the top comment on the YouTube video for “Heaven or Las Vegas” by the Cocteau Twins: “The vibe of this song makes me feel like I’m a high school girl entering prom. I am a 30 year old man.” Not only is that funnier than most tweets, it’s an insightful statement about the song that further affirms two beliefs I hold: that much of the best music criticism actually lives in YouTube comments, and that YouTube comments are not nearly as awful as people say they are. I’d generally rather read what people have to say about a given song there than on Pitchfork. In particular, whenever I listen to house and techno from the ‘80s and ‘90s on YouTube, I always check the comments—they’re a mixture of nostalgic anecdotes from the posters’ salad days, joyful declarations of love for the music, jokes, and hybrids of the above, such as this comment on “Voodoo Ray” by A Guy Called Gerald: “I want this at my funeral…it will chill everyone out…straight onto the dance floor with free bar, and ham buttys, a Yorkshire thing.” Sorted by relevance, the good stuff always rises to the top, and the people with the most enthusiasm seem to be the ones who post.

Sometime during the last fifteen years, YouTube comments developed a terrible reputation. As the platform matured, users came to think of those comment sections as the internet’s ultimate cesspools, the places where the most poorly adjusted online personalities congregated to spew their most toxic bile. I’m sure that’s still true for many categories of YouTube content that I don’t watch, but every time I happen to scroll down, I’m pleasantly surprised by what I see. In his essay about “digital homelessness,” Venkatesh Rao uses the YouTube comments section as his example of a broken digital public space: “The baseline mode of presence on YouTube for the audience is much too primitive to count as fully human…As YouTube comments section reveal, it is far too fragmented a space for healthy people to meaningfully inhabit in any persistent way…On YouTube, there are no clear ways to form communities, develop neighborly relationships and friendships, and so on. Sociologically, it is like a business district in a bad part of town.” Rao contrasts YouTube with Twitter, where it is much easier to be “at home” by presenting an integrated personality that endures from one day to the next, and where one can interact with others in more robust ways. On Twitter you can even participate in communities, supposedly. And yet, despite their shortcomings in these areas, YouTube comments seem to have gotten better over time (while Twitter has arguably gotten worse).

The desire to form digital communities has existed as long as the internet itself, but has become especially acute since the pandemic: Restricted access to communities grounded in the physical world pushed everything online—even more than it already was. Well before 2020 but even more so since then, social media has fueled an increasingly urgent imperative to bring one’s “whole self” to the internet rather than using it in more detached or instrumental ways. It’s hard to remember now, but when Facebook emerged on college campuses in 2004, it was less a destination than a support system for offline socializing among people who already shared maximum context (it quickly evolved into something different). By using the term “homeless,” Rao suggests that a platform’s failure to accommodate more robust digital selves—a failure that YouTube comments epitomize—is a sign of deeper problems: lurking as an indicator of social breakdown. But at this particular moment, after collectively gorging ourselves on the internet for more than a year, maybe that failure is actually a strength. TikTok’s clear distinctions between performer and audience, and even the ability to dispassionately comment on a YouTube video with no expectation of ongoing connection, might offer a healthier alternative to the parasocial jungle of Twitter, where everything feels more real than it actually is, and consequently becomes more real than it should be. We rarely (if ever) exist online as complete people, and when it seems like we do, it’s usually an illusion. Maybe—especially right now—we’re better served by digital environments that prevent us from fully inhabiting them.

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For this week’s paid subscriber issue, I wrote about living in New York for ten years, Occupy Wall Street, and which things feel surprisingly similar to how they felt a decade ago.