The Nostalgia Critic, New Media, and the Rise of Online Communities
“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”
An old paper on the Nostalgia Critic, written five years ago. Useful for the analysis on the effects of nostalgia.
He Remembers It so You Don’t Have to: The Nostalgia Critic’s Influence in Popular Culture
If you look at current popular culture, you may be quite surprised to find yourself living in past ideas. The entertainment industry, especially the film industry, is cashing in on the marketability of our past memories, and is quite successful at it. Films such as Star Trek, Transformers, TMNT, and Terminator: Salvation all are examples of the Hollywood blockbusters relying on the profitability of our memories for box office success. Nostalgia is on the rise in popular culture, and is quite evident in the media elite.
However, on the other side of the entertainment spectrum, new ideas are to be found in user contributed content online. Through websites such as Youtube, Blip.tv, Flickr, among others, consumers find they too may contribute to popular culture, bypassing the traditional model of the media elite through distribution companies. Many musicians, artists, and writers find they can communicate their ideas at little to no cost online, and even make a profit from it as well.
Between these sides stands Doug Walker, known by many aliases, his most famous being the Nostalgia Critic. As said Critic, Doug provides scathing reviews of movies and television shows from the 1980s and 1990s, cultural objects that are often distorted in our memories by nostalgia. In an interview with Daniel, Walker revealed that he thought “it would be funny to have a character who . . . [was] very angry because it wasn’t as good as he remembered it, it was usually worse” (Walker). To share his vision, he founded his website, thatguywiththeglasses.com, in 2008 with Michael Michaud and Mike Ellis. Averaging 16.5 million page views a month, and generating over $150,000 dollars in revenue, his website is quite successful, even receiving a Webby nomination for best viral video the same year. His success illustrates that although big business is struggling in this recession, entrepreneurs are able to succeed. Although the site appears to only attract niche audiences, the Nostalgia Critics’ fan base proves powerful, clearly shown by the reactions over the trailer site’s two year anniversary special (Two Year Anniversary Trailer: KICKASSIA!, That Guy with the Glasses.com)
Although the Nostalgia Critic is an internet show, its impact is still significant upon popular culture, though it appears unclear as to how it does so. The purpose of this essay is to answer this by exploring the Nostalgia Critic’s impact on the directly related topics of grassroots entertainment, nostalgia, and online communities. To do so, a model of analysis will be needed, fulfilled by the theory of media logic within media centered-criticism.
In the new millennium, we find that this generation is experiencing a technological revolution (Strauss and Howe, 28). Many researches have noted a shift in the development of user-generated content that is blurring the distinction between the elite media producers and the passive consumers (Bruns, 2008, van Dijck, 2009). This developing context requires a certain method of critique to fully understand the Nostalgia Critic’s importance as a cultural artifact. The method to be employed in this analysis will be media-centered criticism. Media- centered criticism is a method of cultural analysis concerning the ways in which the means of communication influence the message. Defining researchers in this area are David L. Altheide and Robert P. Snow, who developed the idea of media logic, the idea that “the assumptions and processes for constructing messages within a particular medium” (Altheide, “Creating Fear”, 102). A key feature of media logic concerns the format of communication, because it “refers to the rules or “codes” for defining, selecting, organizing, presenting, and recognizing information” (Altheide, “Media Logic and Political Communication”, 294). For example, formats allow us to distinguish what is reality and what is parody, from what is truth to what is fiction. In this case, the format of the internet must be taken into consideration.
The key trait of the internet is best described in Stewart Blant’s quote that “information wants to be free” (qtd. in Sandvig 107). Information became more accessible as technology evolved; whereas originally one had to be published to get their ideas into the public eye, today anyone can share their content online, whether it be their opinions, art, or research. With the right software, anyone can create and produce content accessible to everyone on the web, a privilege formerly limited to media elites (van Dijck 43). Certain characteristics prove vital to this framework of free content publishing on the internet, which are it’s fluidity (the ability to change from subject to subject with a matter of clicks), dispersal (forming communities despite physical isolation), speed (instantaneous data collecting), and control (ability to get necessary information easily) (Brummet 2006). All these traits encourage an increase in participatory culture, and shift the traditional hierarchy of popular culture from media elites to more active internet user contributors, thus “the Internet [is] fueling the impulse of this generation to democratize the culture” (Strauss, Howe and Markiewicz 177).
The Nostalgia Critic’s show is a clear example of the successful use of these traits as a grassroots entertainment movement. As stated earlier, the increase in technology and subsequent freedom in content publishing allows anyone with the right programs and vision to become successful on the internet. Rather than a hobbyist or another generic content producer, Walker is taken seriously as an entrepreneur, and like many “Internet entrepreneurs”, he is “making daring new incursions into traditional media categories” (Strauss, Howe and Markiewicz, 112). Like other user-generate content, the Nostalgia Critic’s show proved to be successful despite its origins, subverting the traditional order of elite media companies and marking a key paradigm shift in cultural production. It is evident that the Nostalgia Critic is a spearhead for the grassroots entertainment movement in the success of his show, but also in the inspiration of others. Anyone who thinks they have the talent for reviewing popular culture may submit their work for evaluation. And with at least 50 other shows on his site, many dealing with similar content (examinations of old movies or games), it’s clear that the Nostalgia Critic has significant influence in contributing to the grassroots entertainment movement by being a prime example to follow.
The Nostalgia Critic is also a powerful figure in dismantling the grip nostalgia holds over many recipients of popular culture. Throughout his videos, the Nostalgia Critic hilariously reviews the plot of a movie or television show and points out the many flaws that tend to be forgotten when one waxes nostalgically on them. A number of scholars have done research of the effects of nostalgia (Davis 1979; Lamude 1990; Stauth and Turner 1988; Turner 1987). They find that we always see nostalgia with a sense of pleasure and joy, where the negative is glossed over. Within Davis’ work, he finds that there are multiple layers of nostalgia, from the initial reaction of nostalgia, where everything in the past seems to be perfect, to a reflexive version of nostalgia, where the past is actually questioned in whether it was better or not (21). The Nostalgia Critic falls into the latter line of thinking, actually questioning the material and analyzing it in its quality.
A good example is his review of Home Alone 3, a movie this writer has certain nostalgic connections to. Beginning the review, the Critic illustrates the irony of a movie about an upper-class, white, Chicago-suburban family (a specialty of John Hughes) starting in Hong Kong, dealing with a crime syndicate. This is a remarkable change from the movies of the Home Alone franchise, and along with the fact that Macaulay Culkin is not in the title role, totally uncharacteristic of the franchise as well. Other flaws including the implausibility of the character’s actions, plot holes, and other glaring discontinuities that make it a horrible movie, something this writer never noticed beforehand. Without the harsh, yet hilarious criticisms of the Nostalgia Critic, it is very likely that this writer would have kept this movie in a higher regard, unknowingly acting as a victim of nostalgia. As “nostalgia is memory with the pain removed” (qtd. in Davis 37), the Nostalgia Critic provides an important service in removing a veil of nostalgia from his 200, 000 weekly viewers and rate the work based on its own merit.
Finally, the Nostalgia Critic has an impact in creating a positive online community. As revealed in various scholarly research (Bailey, 2005; Bruns, 2008; Leung, 2009; Strauss, Howe 2006; van Dijck, 2009), user generated content allows for creation of positive individual and communal identities, a trait that is key to the democratic culture of user generated content (van Dijck 42). These scholars find that these communities are formed due to similar tastes and attitudes (van Dijck 45), and contribute through discussions and criticisms of content (Bailey 185). Furthermore, Leung finds that participation, whether contributing or discussing content, psychologically empowers users rather than impeding them (1331). The community centered around the Nostalgia Critic is a clear example of this. There is a devoted fan base fitting this exact description, as the Nostalgia Critic fulfills a niche consisting of few but strong followers. Also, contribution is greatly encouraged on the Critic’s website. Fans may post comments on episodes and even write their own blogs, set on display for the public. Despite geographical distances, fans (and content producers) are able to contribute to the conversations of popular culture. This increased ability to interact with the various texts therefore empowers the fans and encourages more analysis and interaction with content (Leung 1341). By being able to create a positive online community, the Nostalgia Critic reveals his cultural significance in promoting critiques of culture, both past and present.
The Nostalgia Critic is a surprising character, profanely emerging into the world of popular culture as one of its harshest and hilarious critics. He inspires a significant amount of people, from those content producers who follow in his footsteps in the grassroots entertainment movement, to fans who actively engage in content themselves, whether it be discussions or criticisms. Moreover, his unabashed attacks upon the institution of nostalgia is something of a unique order; no where else in the traditional elite media will you find someone whole heartedly critiquing movies and television without the influence of nostalgia, and proving that although many works may tug on the heartstrings, it is vital that intellectuals remain objective to be effective analysts of culture.
Two Year Anniversary Trailer: KICKASSIA! That Guy with the Glasses. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2010. <http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/video-updates/21528-two-year-anniversary-trailer-kickassia>.
Walker, Doug, and Rob Walker. Home Alone 3. That Guy With The Glasses. N.p., 13 Apr. 2010. Web. 13 May 2010. <http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/20125-home-alone-3>.
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