Among people who are close to me, I am renowned for not liking movies or TV. If you’ve ever read my reviews of TV/movies, you’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, as I generally do not like things enough to watch them in the first place. I think it’s great living this way, I can only imagine how many lifetimes I have saved by not watching all that stuff. It’s a shame that I waste that extra time by watching media criticism instead.
That’s right, I enjoy video essays that analyze media that I have never watched, and do not have any intention of ever watching. And I’m sure I’m not alone. In the past six years, YouTube media criticism has emerged as a popular genre—as well as an influential source of progressive commentary.
What’s incredible about these videos, is that they appear to have solved one of my lifelong struggles. How do we have a discussion about unshared media—media that not everyone in the audience has experienced?
Perhaps it is melodramatic to call it a lifelong struggle, but I do mean it. I’ve excelled academically my whole life, causing me to be constantly identified as a nerd, but I’ve never particularly liked the label, because I honestly hated nerd culture. So much of nerd culture was about loving certain genres and franchises (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc), and being obnoxiously evangelical about it. Geeks just didn’t know how to talk about what they loved with people who did not also love the same things.
As the internet has stretched the media landscape in every direction all at once, our media environments overlap less and less. But YouTube media criticism has given me hope that we can still talk about unshared media without being obnoxious about it.
The question is, how do they do it?
To answer this question, it may help to examine a few other models of communication about media.
In this model, we don’t bother talking about unshared media, we just find the right people or community to talk to. This may seem like sidestepping the problem, but I for one prefer that fans discuss their faves among themselves instead of being obnoxious to everyone else. Anyway there are always going to be certain topics that only make sense to talk about among fans.
Many different types of media analysis can be labeled as a “review”, but here I’m referring to the more specific genre of articles/videos that are intended to inform a buy/no-buy decision. Inherently, a review is talking about a piece of media that the audience is not expected to have experienced, but may experience in the future. One of the major limitations of this genre is that it generally tries to avoid spoilers.
In this model, instead of talking about specific pieces of media, we talk about broad patterns. For example, I can talk about the “idiot ball” trope, and even if you’re not familiar with the example I’m using, you can think back to media that you’ve watched with similar patterns.
YouTube media criticism
As an example YouTube criticism of unshared media, I put forth Tim Rogers’ 6-hour review of Tokimeki Memorial. I wouldn’t like to oblige the reader to watch six hours of video (or myself to rewatch it), so I will only refer to its superficial properties.
To start, Tokimeki Memorial is a piece of media you are very unlikely to have heard of. That’s because it’s a 1994 dating sim video game, which was only ever officially released in Japanese. Therefore, Tim Rogers cannot reasonably expect many viewers to have played it, or to ever play it in the future. From its very foundation, Tim Rogers’ analysis is intended to be about unshared media.
I would contrast this with, for example, Lindsay Ellis’ video about Game of Thrones, which is about one of the most popular TV shows of all time. So even while it is written to be understandable regardless of whether you watched Game of Thrones, it feels targeted at fans, and in my non-fan opinion, suffers as a result. One of the strongest negative signals, in my experience, is if a video essay is about a popular piece of media that I have not experienced. More obscure pieces of media, such as Tokimeki Memorial, are actively preferable.
To accommodate viewers who have never heard of Tokimeki Memorial, Tim Rogers gives lengthy and vivid descriptions. At one point he walks through his personal experience playing it. The video medium is well-suited to this approach, as he can play clips of the game.
And, to point out the obvious, YouTube is a one-to-many mode of communication, which aligns with the inherent asymmetry of talking about unshared media. This kind of discussion just wouldn’t work in face-to-face conversation, since most people wouldn’t appreciate being monologued about a piece of media that they cannot meaningfully say anything about.
Another important aspect of the discussion is that it is not primarily about whether the game is good or bad. If I’m never going to play it, I don’t particularly care if it’s good or bad. Tim Rogers clearly thinks the game is good, he’s not avoiding the question, but it’s clearly not his main point. I’m not sure the video has any single main point, but the takeaways I remember are: Tokimeki Memorial is culturally significant; it was much more mechanically complex than many dating sims we are familiar with today; and the game is about getting a “do-over” of high school, only to fail over and over again. The video is informative, thought-provoking, and emotionally evocative, all without requiring me to ever play the game in question.
The next question is, why would anyone ever give this six hour video a chance in the first place? I think that in order to get something out of media analysis, you have to have some trust in the analyst to not waste your time. Tim Rogers earns that trust through his prior reputation, but a more obscure creator may have to do more.
As a hobbyist blogger, I’m interested in applying these lessons to improve my writing about media that I do not expect the reader to have experienced. For example, I’ve recently written “reviews” of a couple TV shows (although my goal was not really to inform a buy/no-buy decision), and I also spent the past year keeping a diary on games I’ve played. What can I do better?
Unfortunately, it seems like so much of what makes YouTube analysis of unshared media work is specific to the video format. Reading an essay is, generally speaking, a higher energy activity than watching a video, so doing something like summarizing a game in vivid detail is so much more costly to do in text. Most people, I know, are unwilling to watch a 6 hour video; but persuading people to spend six hours to read an equivalent article is beyond my imagining.
So my thinking is that in a written article, it’s better not to include a full summary of the piece of media. Rather, it’s better to explain only what is needed for the main points. And the main points should not chiefly be about whether the media is good or bad, but something that would be relevant to a person who never intends to experience the piece of media.
But I really don’t have the answers here. If any readers have any thoughts, let’s hear it in the comments.