The past returns to life
See if you can work out what is going on here, here and here. Rita Hayworth and the finale to Tristan and Isolde. Rita Hayworth and Softly Awakes My Heart from Samson and Delila. Rita Hayworth montaged with Chopin.
We are less than five years into the rise of social networking and self-publication and it's already giving rise to new forms of human behaviour. The fascinating thing is, though, how redolent of old, even ancient, forms of behaviour our online activity is.
I've reported before on Newsnight about death rituals inside multiplayer games; new forms of ancestor worship on genealogy sites and the re-emergence of "Cartesian dualism", where people begin to conceive of their online self as a separate entity, much as Descartes conceived the mind as a separate material entity from the body.
What I think is going on in these lovingly crafted schmaltzy "tribute" videos is also quasi-religious. It is a kind of beatification. And it's just part of the wider re-emergence of collective memory that the social media has opened up.
YouTube is fascinating in this regard. We are opening up whole layers of past experience that have been forgotten and buried. If you are, for example, a Rita Hayworth fan the base layer is ripped-off clips of the best bits of her movies.
Then you get fairly straightforward biographical pieces like this (although the YouTube movie makers can never seem to resist montaging Rita against 19th century opera).
And on top of that, clips from documentaries.
Switch from Rita to less palatable memories of the 1940s and there is a lot out there in YouTube land. The Nazi Horst Wessel Lied comes in just as many formats as Rita Hayworth tributes, and you can also watch Nazi wartime propaganda videos that are still banned in Germany.
Now, while I think these can be valuable source material for historians and students, my guess is that a lot of this stuff is not being watched for that reason, but for the general purpose of hate-nostalgia.
I will not post any links to them, but there are hundreds of Nazi-nostalgia videos on YouTube, including photos of modern housewives with swastika cake-icing decoration tips.
It is not all pernicious. As a result of the geeky obsessions of individuals, nostalgia has become a giant industry on YouTube. Remember the Singing Ringing Tree? Here it is (I had nightmares about that dwarf as a kid!).
Want to know what a cotton mill was like in the '30s, and what kind of cheesy movies will get produced if we enter a Depression again? Click here.
One of my own geeky obsessions is the 1930s dance band Orlando and his Orchestra, for the simple reason that my grandfather played clarinet with them. Until today I've managed to assemble MP3s of maybe five or six tracks by them. But while writing this blog I absent-mindedly typed in the name of a singer who worked for them and it came up with this.
The interesting thing here is that it's been uploaded by a German 78 record collector. And because of the way YouTube is indexed, you tend to find a lot more searching YouTube than you would if you simply searched Google.
What all this is about is, ultimately, the human memory and its interaction with emotions like loss, nostalgia, idealisation.
It fascinates me because almost everything produced by amateurs on YouTube has a clear subtext, whether it's "I'm really a Nazi" or "I would like women to go back to being like Rita Hayworth".
Whereas when people blog, and above all when they are social networking, the discourse is mainly "text" not subtext. Just look at all your friends who are under the age of 35 on Facebook and, generally, their profile photos say "How cool am I?".
The Facebook discourse is literal, straightforward. The YouTube montage is complex, subtextual and takes us into areas of psychology few people would normally want to expose themselves to in public. There's a whole other aspect of historical memory opening up right now on Google Earth, as well, which I'll explore in a future blogpost.
What does it mean? Where is it all leading?
I don't know. One of the most challenging things about this rapid emergence of new forms of communication is that there's almost no academic work going on about it, and what research is being done is fragmented across many different disciplines.
Many people still find it hard to accept that the online world is part of reality. Sarah Palin famously had a go at the US government for funding research into fruit flies in Paris, so I can't imagine public funding for research into online funeral rituals inside World of Warcraft getting rave reviews in some quarters.
I will open it up to the collective wisdom of the Newsnight crowd. Is all this stuff evidence of mass psychological disturbance or are we using the internet to make ourselves psychologically healthier by searching out our fears, fantasies and lost memories?