Highly Scientific Cultural Studies via YouTube

Does looking at a region’s top-watched internet videos count as cultural research?

 

Here are my brief summaries and commentary on Taiwan’s top 2013 Youtube videos, followed by some concluding thoughts.

 

Some things to keep in mind:

  • I have not done anything to look up the back story for these videos, so this exercise of watching them and pondering them is all based on my current general understanding of happenings and culture in Taiwan.
  • To give the viewcount some perspective: my totally rough estimate of the Taiwanese population under the age of 40 that might be watching Youtube videos ~12 million people.
  • And related to that comment above, as far as I know, Youtube is one of the most widely-used video sharing websites in Taiwan (although if someone has thoughts on how/where to look up and compare Taiwanese Youtube traffic to other websites, let me know – I’m quite curious. More on this in my conclusion)
  • Of course, all the videos are in Chinese/Taiwanese, so awkward translations to English and interpretation errors are my fault
  • But actually a some of them are relatively light on language so feel free to watch them even if you don’t understand Chinese…

 

1. “Sorry, students – that promotion…”
Recording of some students singing and dancing in trying to get a discount at McDonald’s only to be told that the promotional activity is over [~2.3 million views]
My guess is that this is one of those clips that’s popular because it manages to capture the absolute normality of sometimes doing something really embarrassing. Also, it’s super short and a little difficult to figure out what’s going on, so most people probably watched it at least 2-3 times.

 

2. “In the south, use dentures”
News broadcast about someone who posted on the internet attempting to find out the name of a Korean song [~2 million views]
The transliteration into Chinese characters that this person provides is memorably silly: “in the south, use dentures”, but actually sounds similar to the Korean lyrics to the song that they want to know the name of. The news story features clips asking people on the street if they know the song, an interview with a Korean language teacher to ask about the meaning of the words, and the reveal of the song name and artist. Impressively enough, the original poster also received a helpful reply on the forum within the span of 8 minutes. Taiwanese news is a spectacle of ridiculous stories; a fact known and acknowledged by locals and foreigners alike. I really don’t know what makes this story stand out, but it does reflect that Korean music is popular in Taiwan…?

 

3. “If only I had known earlier: Men can also be victims of sexual assault”
Short educational film from the Bureau of Education [~1.8 million views]
The storyline follows a student who is probably supposed to be 14-18 who fights with his grandmother and therefore storms out of the house. He and a friend end up going home with a creepy older man that they meet at an internet cafe who promises that they can stay with him and buys them food and alcohol to further lure them. The main character’s friend passes out from the alcohol and the protagonist is violently assaulted by the older man. Yet he feels isolated and like no one will believe his story, so he doesn’t tell anyone until a kindly teacher gets him to confess why he’s so upset. At a stunningly long 17 and half minutes, extremely stiff acting, and obviously awkward premise, I am impressed that it has gotten so many views. I kept waiting for something about the video to be too over the top into the land of hilarity, but it managed to stay in the zone of just an awkward PSA. Perhaps it was actually being shown in classrooms via Youtube? I note that it also expounds some other good Confucian values at the same time such as: not fighting with your grandmother, and studying hard instead of playing computer games.

 

4. “The Emperor Eats”
Dramatic clip from the end of a wildly popular mainland China drama juxtaposed with subtitles in Taiwanese [~1.6 million views]
The clip mocks the main character’s exceptionally dramatic pronouncement of the death of the emperor in the last episode of the Legend of Zhen Huan. An emperor’s death is referred to with the special terminology 駕崩 jia4beng1. This clip points out that i sounds like Taiwanese for “to eat” (especially with the extremely emotional, clippy way that the actress is proclaiming it). It’s pretty obvious to me how this clip got is so popular: not only is the TV series really popular in Taiwan, but also every episode is available on Youtube, leading to the ease of clicking over to this clip after binging on the series itself. It also has the extra bonuses of being short, and of course the joke revolves around knowing Taiwanese. It’s one of the two clips that I had seen before watching this top 10 list.

 

5. “Classic Quotes from Student Life”
Comedy skit reflecting the stereotypical scenarios of junior high / high school classrooms [~1.5 million views] 
Produced by an online sketch comedy group, this 3 minute video is a fast-paced series of scenes depicting life as a student stitched together in a non-stop montage. Of course this includes everything from rumors about who likes whom, trying to cheat on tests, the student who claimed they didn’t study getting the highest exam grade, asking to borrow classmate’s writing utensils, failed attempts at flirting, girls asking the boys to do everything, boys running to go play ball and being pushed aside by girls going to the bathroom (???), worrying about being late, ghost stories about the bathroom, etc etc… and finally ending with everyone giving the proper polite “thank you” to the teacher. Well, there it is – the Taiwanese cultural obsession with secondary school education summed up in 3 minutes. By which I mean to say, I get a feeling that the experience is mildly traumatizing, creating of a sense of unified camaraderie that all Taiwanese have passed through the same ordeal; as such, there are too many romanticized references to life as a Taiwanese school kid for me to even begin expanding upon. Anyway, the editing of this video sketch is suave which probably also helps with its popularity.

 

6. “101 Flash Mob Chorus in Taipei 101, Taiwan”
(the title says it all) [~1.8 million views]
Probably popular because of it’s heart-warmingly “I love Taiwan” feel, being that it takes place in Taipei 101 and the songs are traditional, or about Taiwan. It’s impressive that they whip out a collection of instruments, and one also wonders about the performers in the service gear (are they actually servers from the 101 food court who can also sing, or did they just borrow the get up and do a bit of service work to blend in for a few minutes before singing?) It’s just a fact of modern life that the way that most people watch a flashmob performance also includes simultaneously recording the event with their cell phones.

 

7. “What you can do under a coat: MRT Dragon Cavalry Edition”
Comedy skit about doing weird things under a jacket on the Taipei MRT [~1.7 million views]
This sketch taps the double prong of ridiculous juvenile antics and “wow I guess they actually did these things in public to film this” as it is undeniably on the real Taipei MRT. Ostensibly, one person is up to sketchy business under a coat in the lap of another person on the subway, but then the coat is pulled off several times to reveal some comedically non-sexual behavior. Of course it also includes cross-dressing, good-old Taiwanese “playful” girl on boy violence, references to milk tea, and people who take selfies while on public transportation. At least it’s not even a full minute and a half.

 

8. “First on scene of Keelung Badouzi landslide”
Dashboard camera footage of a pretty terrifying landslide [~8.9 million views]
This is one of those disasters-caught-on-camera videos that’s entrancing because it easily could have happened to anyone given how often landslides occur in Taiwan. The clip is a “winner” for a few reasons: it captures a falling boulder that comes hair-raisingly close to crushing a car, but in the end, the car seems ok – so it’s not actually tragic; furthermore, the slow reveal of the huge boulder as the other debris settles, and the teetering of the boulder on the edge of totally crunching the car are dramatically perfect; and finally, if you rewatch the video a few times, the dislodgement of the boulder from above is actually captured clearly in the first few seconds of the video (but you don’t notice it upon the first viewing). I had also seen this video previously, and given the number of comments in non-Chinese, it seems like it got posted around on a few other places outside of Taiwan, leading to its particularly high viewcount.

 

9. “Support nuclear! Oppose nuclear!” (that’s a super awkward translation, sorry)
A speed rant about the ongoing debate on the construction of a nuclear power plant in northern Taiwan [~1.3 million views]
(Also, given the fast pace and generous inclusion of Taiwanese phrases, please pardon me if my understanding/translations are kind of poor; even though the video is black with vaguely subtitle-ish text and graphics…) Who doesn’t love a home-brew, rapid-fire rant that third-sources a wide collection of information to make a point? Throw in all the local references the video makes, the fervor of this debate in Taiwan now, an explanation of both sides, yet clear stand that the video-maker takes on the issue, and you have a video that gets watched a lot. Also, the ranter emphasizes that regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his arguments and his presentation, the key is thinking about the issue and not just going along with the flow of other people. I agree with this point and hope that this at least has had some influence.

 

10. “Dedicated to the Taiwan Team: PROUD OF TAIWAN”
A tribute video to the Taiwanese baseball team for the 2013 Classic [~1.2 million views]
The video is a lot of clips of baseball stitched together. Looks like they played against Japan. I think I remember this happening and it was deal at the time. I watched the whole ~6 minutes of this video, but I don’t know enough about sports to make any commentary beyond this: I guess some 1.2 million people like and care about Taiwanese baseball.

 

 

Concluding thoughts:
After writing this up, I feel strongly that this collection of videos is a sliver-thin, yet interesting reflection of a slice of Taiwanese society. I’m actually surprisingly glad that I took the time to do this. I definitely would not have understood why these videos were popular, or many of the references that these videos make if I had not been living in Taiwan for much of the past year: ubiquitous pieces of life in Taiwan such as the milk tea shaker, landslides, or romantic references to life in high school would have all been totally lost on me.

 

I was impressed by how long it took me to write this. Largely, it took a while because I revised my descriptions for most videos several times, trying to ensure that my explanations are accessible to people who aren’t so in tune with Taiwan. Along the way, I kept noticing assumptions about prior knowledge that I was making. So let this be a piece of anecdotal support for how culture seeps into one’s conscience through time.

 

On another note, it’s kind of impressive how few of these videos have more than 2 million views. Compared to my estimate of 12 million watchers, that’s not particularly viral. Thus, my suspicion that there may be some other popular video hosting site that I should also check out. Still, I feel like I would have stumbled across said Youtube competitor by now via postings on Facebook.

 

Ok, enough ponderings for now. Also, too many Youtube videos is probably bad for one’s brain, so I’m definitely ready to call it quits.

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