Power to The People: A critical analysis of the “Shit People Say” phenomenon and cultural representations on Youtube

by T. Asad

The media landscape of the 1980s and 1990s is no longer. Technological advances— specifically the emergence of the internet, and in more recent years, social media— has changed media consumption on a global scale. In the text, Media and Society, Croteau, Hoynes and Milan (2012) argue that the digital revolution “allows users to make more choices, provide responses, customize products and delivery options, and even produce and share their own media content.” This increase in public agency presents increasing opportunities for audiences, particularly those underrepresented in mainstream media outlets, to take an active role shifting cultural representations in society using social media tools. In this paper, I will examine the “Shit People Say” phenomenon to illustrate the importance of YouTube as a vehicle to increase public agency in the global media; as well as demonstrate how YouTube serves as an innovative platform to challenge conventional narratives of cultural groups.

There are a few important key factors to consider when analyzing the impact YouTube has in mainstream media. First, the video-sharing website has more than 1 billion unique users’ visits each month. According to the company, videos are available for viewing in 61 countries, across 61 languages (YouTube 2013). Additionally, it was reported that the site reaches more adults than any major cable network in the world, making it the most successful and accessible website of its kind (YouTube 2013).

In December 2011,Shit Girls Say, a 79-second comedic sketch by Kyle Humphrey and Graydon Sheppard was uploaded on YouTube and quickly went viral. In the video, two male actors dress as women, while demonstrating “typical” things women say and do— from a male perspective. Although many people found the skit to be both inaccurate and offensive it sparked a world-wide phenomenon. The YouTube clip received millions of hits and was shared on numerous social media sites, embedded in blogs and aired on a number of television stations. Soon after, the internet was flooded with dozens of response videos.

A mounting number of “Shit People Say” videos were added to YouTube portraying various ethic, social, political and religious groups. Among the most popular were Shit Black Girls Say, Shit Black Gays Say, Shit Spanish Girls Say, Stuff Muslims Say, Stuff Super Saved Christians Say, Shit Hipsters Say, Shit Democrats Say and so on. Viewers from around the world began posting videos depicting the behavior and colloquialisms indigenous to their subculture. Regional “Shit People Say” videos were also popular. Videos representing natives of cities such as Miami, DC, Philadelphia and New York began to gain major popularity. Soon universities, fans of sports teams and even people in certain career fields began posting videos representative of their daily lives.

Although the trend was inspired by a singular comedic sketch, there was one glaring deviation in subsequent videos— the majority of the “Shit People Say” clips were produced by individuals who self-identified with the group they portrayed in the sketch, adding a new dimension to the phenomenon. The “Shit People Say” videos became a public resource to examine how groups perceived themselves, and how they believed themselves to be perceived by “outsiders”.

Cultural Representations in Media Institutions

In the text, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Stuart Hall argues that culture is one of the most difficult concepts in human and social sciences because there are many ways to define it (Hall 1997).  A modern anthropological interpretation of culture is “whatever is distinctive about the ‘way of life’ of a people, community, nation or social group” (Hall 1997).

This text discusses the complexities associated with defining cultures, and identifying cultural markers and representational systems within any given society.  Hall writes, “To say that two people belong to the same culture is to say they interpret the world roughly in the same ways and can express themselves, their thoughts and feelings about the world, in ways which will be understood by each other.” (Hall 2007).

The “Shit People Say” videos, coupled with the interactive model of YouTube created a global space for members of subcultures and marginalized groups to engage in public discourse about cultural markers specific to their demographic. In addition to discussing common customs and behaviors, audiences began addressing the stereotypes, general misconceptions and problematic portrayals of social and ethnic groups in mainstream media in a serious and thoughtful way.

Social media tools such as YouTube provide audiences with the agency to develop and contribute, and often times shift dominate narratives. The “Shit People Say” is merely one example of this. In recent years, sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars among various disciplines have explored the influence YouTube has as it relates to media, social justice movements, politics and other pop culture phenomenons. Providing a climate for individuals to create media content and disseminate visual and audio content on a massive scale has revolutionized communication practices.

I would argue that the “Shit People Say” phenomenon gained international popularity primarily because marginalized audiences were given the opportunity to produce, distribute and share media content depicting entertaining and significant portrayals of their own cultural identity. Although the language and colloquialisms are the prominent factor in these videos, visual nuances (props, costuming, mannerisms, settings, and symbolism) all contribute to the cultural representations in these videos.

The use of common phrases and visual representations indigenous to American subcultures are compelling sources for the semiotic and discursive analysis of cultural representation in the media as outlined in the chapter. As Hall stated in the text, language is an important dimension of cultural representation and interpretation (Hall 1997).

In conclusion, YouTube is one of the most influential and successful video-streaming and social network sites in the United States and abroad. The interactive platform, accessibility and high-volume of traffic create an innovative space for its users to increase their agency in producing, publishing, and sharing media content for mass audiences. Using the “Shit People Say” phenomenon the author has illustrated how Youtube creates a vehicle to develop and expand cultural representations and signifying practices in media.

REFERENCES

“About Us”. HuffPost Live. (n.d.) http://www.youtube.com

Croteau, David, Hoynes, William and Milan, Stefania. Media/Society. United States: Sage Publication, Inc, 2012.

Hall, Stuart. Representations. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. United States: Sage Publication, Inc., 1997

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