Thursday, December 4, 2008

YouTube is to television addicts as a packed fridge is to compulsive overeaters

I grew up watching a lot of TV -- maybe not by those "average American" standards you're always hearing about (six hours a day? Really?), but certainly a decent bit by any other measure. I regularly watched a solid block of cartoons from approximately 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, and I was a big fan of sitcoms (as were my parents, especially my mom): Family Ties, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Roseanne. Though in the past I consulted YouTube mostly for wacky one-offs (Dramatic Chipmunk!) and Obama campaign clips, over the past few months I've begun to realize the medium's true potential as a television (and, to a lesser degree, movie) archive -- and it's as addictive as the proverbial crack.

This is no news, but it is becoming a problem. (The New Yorker's current article on luxury rehab helped put my behavior in the context of addiction.) I find myself staying up too late, sometimes way too late, watching -- what, The Class? The Big Bang Theory? I think the habit started in the spring, when I was still reeling from my breakup with Emily. I began watching Quarterlife, the endearing Web series that made a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to cross over to prime-time TV (and subsequently died one of the quickest deaths in television history). I stayed up late to watch one episode -- sorry, "Webisode" -- after another, like a chain smoker who lights the next cigarette with the current one.

TV on YouTube is comforting in a way that on-air TV and even rented TV isn't -- it's free (so no financial guilt), and it's available anytime (so your every whim can be catered to, provided you don't mind having some episodes of certain series chopped into "best bits" highlight reels). In my life in general, I've been doing a bit better lately in terms of self-discipline, and that includes trying to get to bed earlier. But every so often, especially after a couple of productive days, I feel a strong, almost insuperable need to "wind down" before bed -- and occasionally, winding down lasts until the middle of the night, or even the morning. I try not to get too down on myself for it, but I'd like to make it happen less frequently.

My desire to be soothed by something drug-like finds tremendous fulfillment in YouTube's nearly unlimited supply of old TV shows. After reading Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander's landmark treatise against the medium as a whole, I began to rethink my assumption that TV is inherently neutral, a blank slate that can be used for either benign or destructive purposes. Now I think the Internet, despite its interactive nature, may have an even greater potential to addict us and dumb us down. Again, no news, but something I'm struggling with firsthand right now. Just as a compulsive overeater has to deal with food every day, someone who works as a freelance writer and is looking for a day job needs to use the computer on a daily basis. The challenge is knowing when to stop.

Oh, and this just in: A YouTube commenter remarks, in response to the pilot episode of Quarterlife and the series' protagonist, Dylan Krieger:
A genetically perfect, healthy American woman lies on her bed and moans about her life into her $2000 Mac. Our western society has never been more affluent and never been more dull. Where are the real intricacies, hardships and wonderment of being human? What is this endless vanity, faux psychology, surface emotion of internet blogspeak? We are a generation locked in a time-warp of high school crushes and teen angst naval gazing [sic]. Time to grow up and start being the adults that we are.
Ain't that the damn truth. Ms. Krieger, c'est moi!

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