What a YouTube Star Can Teach Us About “the ball and chain of the Internet”

“There’s been times when I have been hanging out with friends, acquaintances, family, and I have not given proper attention to the task at hand when it comes to enjoying life, like I said, seeing things with these (gestures to eyes) instead of through a…smart phone, or a DSLR or a zoom lens.”

-Adam the Woo, YouTube personality

YouTube was mainly a place to listen to music or watch movie trailers until this past year when I discovered  Justin Scarred. I love his Randomland Adventures series on YouTube, especially since I am Disneyland fanatic and he often films there. Adam the Woo, another YouTube personality, has sometimes been featured in Justin’s adventures, and while at first I didn’t know of Adam, I learned that he had his own, even larger, following. Adam the Woo spent 5 plus years from July 2012 to September 2017 uploading daily vlogs (video blogs) to his YouTube Channel, “The Daily Woo” which has  about 150,000 subscribers. Adam often posted footage of his exploits exploring film locations, abandoned places, theme parks and other places that interested him.

While I’m not a dedicated follower of Adam the Woo, I found out through Justin Scarred that Adam was ending his daily vlogs. While he plans on creating new, more innovative content for YouTube in the future, posting daily online for over 5 years had taken it’s toll (1911 posts total!) and he is taking a hiatus from YouTube. I watched this final vlog out of curiosity and the situation he describes seems to me like an extreme form of what a lot of us are doing to ourselves in our own ordinary lives even if we are not YouTube sensations.

At the beginning it took him a little while to figure out where he was going with the vlog but then people started to catch on and enjoy it. He says, “And that became a very positive thing but it also became a downfall in ways where I felt required, all fault of my own, to be able to adhere to a strict schedule that I had set for myself, by filming all day, editing at night, uploading, putting it on private and making it live the next morning, and then the deja vu train would begin again the next day.”

He gave a full explanation as to why he felt he needed to quit vlogging every single day. Some of it was that it hindered him creatively. Some of it was that he was simply tired. But what really stood out to me is the way he described how this “hair brained crazy idea” had taken away from him being present and enjoying his own life. He says, “It has wormed it’s way into certain other aspects of my life and really started to make me realize how I’m not seeing life with my own eyes.”

Adam describes what seems to be a turning point for him where he realized that he had neglected to spend time with the people closest to him on his birthday to edit and film content for the vlog. He says that he wants to do things and go places that he loves without a camera in his hand. “I want to hang out with my friends like it used to be. I want to hang out with my family the way it used to be. Not always worrying and wondering what people are going to think, what people are going to say…”

All of this got me thinking of how a lot of us non YouTubers have a similar problem as Adam the Woo. Even if we are just taking pictures to preserve our memories, and even more so if we are posting a lot of these pictures and videos and status updates online, our minds have a habit of thinking of how the present moment will translate to an image, a video, or to our “audience” much like Adam the Woo did. With newer features like Stories on Instagram and Snapchat Story, our lives almost become like a mini YouTube channel. We also may be removing ourselves from the moment to obsessively monitor the reaction to something we recently posted.

Even if a person doesn’t post much online, phone addiction is still an issue. We lack the ability to sit without constant stimuli or without giving in to our compulsive curiosity about what is going on online. I recently went to a movie and the woman in front of me annoyingly kept checking her phone (the light is what bothers me most and though I’m not a confrontational person, a wave of anger came over me and I wanted to kick her chair). I intentionally spied on what she was looking to see what was so very important. She wasn’t even interacting with anyone. She was just opening up different pages on her phone, mainly Facebook I think, just to check.

I say this as someone who is weak in these same areas and who also has plenty of good things to say about smartphones, the internet, and social media. There’s a balance. It’s not about abandoning these things. At their best, they’re a really fun way to connect with others and be creative. But I think it’s about knowing when to turn the camera or phone or recorder off and really look at and enjoy what’s going on around you. It’s knowing when to have silence. It’s not constantly grabbing at your phone for entertainment, validation, attention, or whatever else ails you. To go back to Adam the Woo, people enjoyed his vlogs, and it seems like he enjoyed sharing and creating them, but he had gotten to a point where he knew he needed to turn the camera off for a while. Adam says as he concludes what his decision means for himself: “I’m going to just see the world, I’m gonna see things…without the ball and chain of the internet for a while. That’s what I’m going to do.” This might be good advice for some of us too.

Image Junkies

imageLong before the age of smartphones and social media, Susan Sontag wrote about photography in her essay “Plato’s Cave.” Even in 1974, when the essay was published, she was concerned about the way people felt the need to photograph whatever they saw. She says, “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing.” That italic is hers, not mine. She emphasizes the very feeling I have as I go about my day to day life armed with an iPhone. Indeed, her thoughts on photography become eerie when you think of how much worse it is now that everyone carries a camera with them everywhere they go all of the time.

Sontag seems like she was a true intellectual whose philosophical thoughts are not easy to digest, and to be honest I don’t feel like I have complete understanding of her ideas in this essay, but certain parts stand out to me as they feel even truer now than when they were written. One such part: “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience in search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” How many times have I at least partially refused an experience because I was busy looking at it through a screen? How many times have I thought about how my experience would translate into a post on some sort of social media?

I recently visited a ranch where my friend lives, a ranch with horses, goats, dogs and a cat named Sweetie. The most I’ve been around horses is at this ranch. It had been about year since I’d last been there, so the horses intimidated me again. It is strange and exhilarating to be around these large animals. You know what they look like. Horses are visually everywhere, but I’ve hardly stood next to a real one, petted one, smelled one, watched them flick off the flies, feel their velvet noses. I even saw and petted a foal.

I broke up the experience with my recordings of it. I took pictures and short videos for Snapchat and Instagram. I felt the need to preserve my memories and share a novel experience with others who have followed me on social media. I swung back and forth between being there in the moment, and handling a phone, looking at the horses through a screen.

I’ve struggled with this at Disneyland, where there seems to be a picturesque detail wherever you look, and at museums where they let you photograph the exhibits. I’ve struggled with this in nature, and now because of social media, even before I eat. Isn’t it strange to pause before eating your sushi or tacos and have to take a picture to post to social media because you feel compelled to remember it forever and show others that you experienced it? In all honesty, if someone made me take a trip to some place I would love to go and said it would be free except I was not allowed to take photographs or post anything online, it would give me some anxiety. No record of what I did? No memories preserved forever? No way to share with others what I did? It shouldn’t trouble me as much as it initially does. Isn’t memory and experience more valid than a photo? Not anymore. What Sontag says rings true: “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participation in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.”

I’m not saying that there’s anything inherently wrong with taking pictures, or wanting to preserve your memories, or even with social media, but there’s something that feels wrong with feeling so compelled to have a record of what’s happening that you continually remove yourself from the moment with that running stream of thought of what is worth taking a picture of, how to get a good shot, and what to post online. Going back to Sontag, “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”