David Hoffman: A Running Tour of YouTube Nation

David Hoffman produced 88 PBS documentary features and five feature-length films over a forty-year career. But that was then. And this is a guy whose life keeps starting over. Always interestingly. We’ve shared before our adventures with the great sound-man Tony Schwartz

We’re in James Der Derian’s class on global media at Brown again, and David Hoffman is pushing through the cliche that we live in a screen culture and a YouTube world. We didn’t know the half of it. Today we’re taking his tour of YouTube nation, peopled by more 1 billion searches every day. Hoffman, who thought he’d been around the whole block, has stumbled on a sort of “Louisiana Purchase” of the media landscape. It’s homey, it’s cheap, it’s much much bigger than network television already, and it’s barely begun to chew up what we used to call media and spit it all out.

Documentary film-making was, and is, a rich person’s pursuit, as he tells us. But anyone can talk to a camera and post the result. He loves YouTube’s celebration of a messy, cheap aesthetic, helping viewers learn to love jump cuts and engage raw content. No one could be happier about this victory of moving image and spoken word: “It’s terrible to sit at your computer screen and read words,” he says, “It’s painful.”

For David Hoffman, this is just the beginning of a long-needed move away from censorship and big media control over information. But it’s a shift, he cautions, that demands a comprehensive new standard of media literacy.

Our conversation begins with this month’s release – by Wikileaks – and its viral penetration – through YouTube – of a classified US government video documenting the alleged “indiscriminate slaying of more than a dozen people” outside of Baghdad:

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  • Did Chris really say “thank you, kids!,” at the end? I know it’s common among North American English-speakers to use that word for students at post-secondary education, but it still sounds strange. Especially since interventions from these students displayed maturity, critical thinking, reflexiveness, etc.

    But that’s just a pet peeve of mine, I guess. In fact, as I was writing this, a student came for office hours and I used this specific case to explain a point about opinions from an anthropological standpoint.

    By the by, it was funny for me to serendipitously hear a radio show about media in which they discussed the significance of YouTube right after I finished listening to this podcast episode. Either “something’s in the air” about YouTube or it’s just one of those coincidences.

    (The radio show is called Médialogues and is on the French-speaking Swiss radio: http://www.rsr.ch/la-1ere/medialogues/

    Of course, much of this reminded me of Mike Wesch’s digital ethnography of YouTube, from a few years ago:


    Not sure YT itself has changed so much in the meantime but the way it’s perceived clearly is changing.

  • Steve Cohen

    This was a terrific show. David Hoffman, with his frankness and irreverent verve throws a fresh light on how youtube effects the way we perceive ourselves. Bravo for a fascinating and inspirational show.

  • Potter

    This was an unexpectedly profound conversation and I found myself taking notes for the many thoughts it provoked which would make for a very long post.

    At the end Chris spoke of Tony Schwartz’s belief that the critical message is delivered through the ear, audio. And David Hoffman agreed. I know this is true and I also know that it is about our emotions- how they are moved and how they in turn move others. The sound, the human voice, is what affects me in the wikileaks video. (I watched the longer version!) I found also that I did not want analysis, in fact I was annoyed especially by those trying to calm me (they were obeying the rules of engagement ???). No nothing could erase my raw emotions.

  • Fabulous! I wondered what to expect but did find this to be very thought provoking and entirely trueIts amazing the impact modern technology has had on our lives and I think it is inspiration what David Hoffman has done.

    Three cheers.

  • This conversation reminds me of the excitement I had about the website Newgrounds, which was a flash video upload site that predates YouTube. They never took off the same way because your file had to be a flash file when you uploaded it, most people just animated their rants (which took a lot more effort than just using a webcam), but it was so exciting to see people coming together and doing something creative, even if it wasn’t always the highest quality. It was just exciting anytime we (and it was a community, so the use of “we” is appropriate) accomplished anything. “THIS is what we are capable of. In the coming days, we will do something even better.”

    My reasons for living on a four-figure income are many, but part of it comes from growing up with the bottom-up media. We don’t need most institutions anymore. We just need an internet connection and we have a wonderful kind of freedom and power.

  • Exciting thought provoking lively presentation & Questions. Metaphor of ‘Nation’applied to YouTube, not 21st Century vision

    Even UNIverse is limiting: so spacious YT MULTIverse, As a den[i]ZEN meditating on empowering potentials of new media notice = improvs everywhere: uniqueness of individuals [beyond equal, inferior, superior] = infinite possibilities.. value of positive POV’s and humour/laughter = [SEED or SPORE] terms preferred to viral/infection. Negative language dysfunctional – violence [shoot] with camera which is extension of Eye; visual sense trumps audio; kinesic competition for our attention – time consuming = as a elder determined to be mistress of IT admit to an addictive dependence – aware of its dangers – adaptation difficult since the evolution is all SPEED [my nightime dreams now include Apps for , Esc, ff and delete]. Question: Do you tube addicts also

    read the comments – written responses to the Videos? Participate in those conversations? Excellent opportunities to manifest tolerance, generosity, discipline, patience, curious, OPEN don’t Know ‘flexible’ Mind.

    Excellent companion to Mike Wesch’s. Oh what a Wonder-fULL world:-)

  • Jonathan E P

    I enjoyed the conversation–it hit on some great insights. However, I was a bit concerned about the fact that Christopher Lydon and James Der Derian both seemed willing to accept Hoffman’s suggestion that shocking material on YouTube has the power to transform society– that somehow the most violent or upsetting material would allow social action. For instance, at one point Der Derian asks “can you imagine what would have happened if there had been sound and moving images of Abu Ghraib” and Hoffman replies that “the future is bright” because there will be many more instances like these, and in those cases there will be sound, video, etc. Hoffman suggests that “it’s got to make us more human, because this stuff is shocking” — he assumes that the collective society will fight the power when alerted to the workings of power by these images, the way he was alerted to social action by images of dogs biting civil rights activists in the 60s.

    I disagree. I think that our society is becoming more and more inured to these images, and as they increase in clarity and verisimilitude our ability to be shocked by them is overcome by a sense of dread and isolation. You can see police abusing people any day of the week on Cops! and similar, worse shows, and nobody cares. Sure, it’s not exactly the same, but we’re really not able to be moved today by images that would have been exceptional just fifteen years ago. So, once we indeed have access to “thousands” of incidents like Abu Ghraib that Hoffman perceives, they will appear banal to us, and the banality of evil will have expanded to include what was previously exceptional.

  • Bryon

    I never thought I’d say this about a ROS podcast, but this one was a rare big dud.

  • I love this conversation and agree on most of it. But YouTube is regulated by some groups. The record industry for example. At first your video was removed when you danced to a prince tune. Now the music is deleted. But video’s are taken off as well. So total artistic freedom on YouTube? Definitely not. My child of 7 dancing on a Lady Gaga song is even a huge issue. This is bad about it, should be solved. It’s still a copyright war out there and all about money, making deals with profit holders.