The Targeted Search for Screwing Around

On: October 4, 2021
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The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books (Ramsay, 2010) attempts to address the problem posed by the overabundance of information. In it, Ramsay argues against the impulse to classify, categorise, and render comprehensible the data produced by humanity. He argues that such an endeavour is beyond our capability and, thus, futile (Ramsay, 2010). Ramsay instead outlines two approaches to forge a path through culture – targeted search and browsing (Ramsay, 2010). He presents browsing, i.e. wandering through archived culture, as a methodology and an important aspect of the research process. Ramsay concludes by arguing for the adoption of the ”community, relationship, and play” (2010, p. 9) of serendipitous paths carved through culture as opposed to organisation.

The ‘browsing as practice’ approach outlined by Ramsay is exemplified by YouTube channels like The Primeval Void (Nithesh, 2018a) and CGP Grey (Grey, 2011). Although the main digital object is a specific genre of YouTube channels, several other platforms are implicated in production processes such as browsing, researching, organising and maintaining community. Nithesh Balasubramanian((Tamil surnames are patronymic. Thus, I refer to Nithesh Balasubramanian by his given name, i.e. Nithesh in the text.)), the creator behind The Primeval Void, self-describes his channel as “infotainment of dubious value” (B. Nithesh, personal communication, October 3, 2021) because of the emphasis on obscure and trivial knowledge. These YouTube channels are a subgenre of educational channels. The latter tend to delve deep into one or more fields of interest, see for instance Sexplanations (Doe & Green, 2013) or CrashCourse (Green & Green, 2011). However, the only through-line for the former is the creators’ interests (Ramsay, 2010). “I make videos that interest me if you see a pattern that’s on you.” (Grey & Hurley, 2017).

The Primeval Void: Svalbard

The creators behind such channels appear to be easily nerdsniped. In fact, I saw it happen whilst I interviewed Nithesh. The term originates from the XKCD webcomic and refers to the moment when a sudden problem intrigues one to the point that they “drop everything else to work on it” (Munroe, n.d.). It is the outcome of these nerdsnipes that is documented on the aforementioned YouTube channels. Thus, henceforth I shall refer to them as nerdsnipe channels. Although Ramsay (2010) does not seem to discuss how the two research practices he outlines interact, nerdsniping can be understood as a moment of transition between browsing and targeted search.

XKCD: Nerd Sniping

Topic ideas are often discovered by browsing through the creators’ curated media ecology (B. Nithesh, personal communication, September 28, 2021). For instance, Nithesh frequents Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter. While browsing Twitter, he came across a news story about Sir Richard Branson “flying to the edge of space” (Amos, 2021). The phrase ‘edge of space’ reminded him of the Kármán line which is one of the definitions for the ‘edge of space’. This was the point at which he was nerdsniped. He looked up the term on Google to click on the link to the Wikipedia page since it is often present in the search results (Vincent & Hecht, 2021). For Nithesh, Wikipedia provides a useful overview of the topic that can point him in the direction of a niche that he could potentially discuss in a video. Additionally, Wikipedia’s, and more broadly the web’s, hyperlinked nature allows him to rapidly travel to a depth of multiple layers into a topic. At this point, the search process shifts back to browsing. In Nithesh’s perspective, the next stage of targeted search occurs when he has a clear narrative for a script. The above topic thread never became a video but some paths lead to dead-ends.

CGP Grey: Someone Dead Ruined My Life… Again

Someone Dead Ruined My Life… Again. (Grey, 2021a) is one such dead-end. The video embodies the ideology Ramsay verbalises as “Here is what I found. What did you find?” (2010, p. 7). Grey exhibits an intense urge to share his journey looking for the origin of a poem that cropped up repeatedly during his research for the age of the name Tiffany. He further invites his viewers to share their knowledge on the subject with him through YouTube comments (Grey, 2021a) and go on their journeys. “If you go on your own french tiffany crusade, be sure to tell ’em grey sent you.” (Grey, 2021b, 4:10). However, it does not appear necessary for the creator to prompt such interaction. The comments section for the Why The Three Laws of Robotics Will Fail video (Nithesh, 2018b) illustrates this through various critical discussions of the video’s premise. In this way, YouTube provides a setting for human interactions (Snickars & Vonderau, 2009). Nonetheless, both users and creators may prefer other platforms for the maintenance of the community around the channel.

The Primeval Void: Why The Three Laws of Robotics Will Fail

Having been a denizen of the internet, Grey finds the discussion around a text to be more interesting than the text itself (Grey & Hurley, 2017). Thus, as a creator, he maintains a subreddit, r/CGPGrey, for this purpose. Whenever he produces new content a dedicated thread is created where discussions regarding it may be had. This community is constructed discursively by the creator and viewers to collectivise “loosely connected individuals” (Pentzold, 2011, p. 717). For instance, Grey describes fans as ‘Bonnie Bees’ (Grey, 2021a).

Additionally, creators also build relationships directly with viewers (Johnston, 2017). This is increasingly important in a fragmented market with an overabundance of content (Nieborg & Poell, 2018). As compared to larger projects, independent YouTube channels have fewer stakeholders and thus, more creative liberty (B. Nithesh, personal communication, October 2, 2021). However, they are still at the mercy of YouTube’s fancies (Nieborg & Poell, 2018). YouTube’s main goal is to accrue advertising revenue (Snickars & Vonderau, 2009). Thus, topics that are considered unfavourable by advertisers or viewers often suffer from negative consequences such as demonetisation or algorithmic suppression. These concerns affect the topics that YouTubers choose to work on. For instance, Grey produced a video about Social Security Numbers and was worried that the topic might be interesting only to American viewers and thus affect the YouTube algorithm’s evaluation of the video and the channel(Grey & Hurley, 2017). In such an economic scenario, it becomes relevant to diversify revenue streams and acquire and retain patrons (Nieborg & Poell, 2018).

YouTube provides a space for the “hermeneutics of screwing around” (Ramsay, 2010, p. 1) by allowing users to share the knowledge we blunder upon, get nerdsniped, and enjoy the pleasure of someone else’s frustrating path through culture. Although not without limitations, nerdsnipe channels are the crowdsourced production of paths through culture that can bring attention to previously uncommon and whimsical knowledge.


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