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You may have heard that Rick Perry’s mind-meltingly horrible anti-gay campaign ad has more dislikes on YouTube than Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” The story has been covered by Time, the Today Show, and the Huffington Post, among many others. There’s only one problem: that’s not actually true. The current version of “Friday” has only been online since September, even though the Internet’s interest in the song clearly dates back to March. That’s because the original YouTube upload of the clip was removed in an aborted attempt to put it behind a paywall; when that didn’t work, “Friday”‘s creators re-upped the original clip, thus resetting the counter on views and dislikes. That current version, it’s true, only has some 250k+ dislikes, less than Perry’s now-400k+ figure. But before it was taken down, the original upload had more than three million dislikes, far outstripping what Perry’s video has accumulated. (Some outlets got it even more wrong, trying to claim that passing Black’s video made Perry’s the most-disliked in YouTube history, even though two Justin Bieber clips and Black’s other video have far more dislikes than Perry’s.)
While some outlets have issued corrections, the “fact” has gone viral, leaving the more interesting question of why, exactly, it’s important that Perry is more disliked than Black (or Bieber). On one level, of course, it’s just good news for liberals, a nice confirmation that their repulsed reaction to Perry’s ad is shared by lots of others. But it belies a deeper anxiety about the relationship between politics and entertainment. In the last few years, YouTube has taken a weirdly major role in our political campaigns, serving as the central clearinghouse of everything from campaign ads like Perry’s to major campaign speeches, career-ending gaffes, and even presidential debates, to say nothing of all the reaction videos and remixes voters produce.
Despite the fact that a service that’s only existed for six years has become central to our democracy, YouTube remains steadfastly focused on more frivolous things. (Same goes for Twitter.) While it’s bracingly impressive that Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech has gotten over six million views, that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to YouTube’s entertainment content; to take even a very recent example, Rihanna’s “We Found Love” video, which has only been online since October, has been viewed more than 72 million times. Even more so than the passive metric of views, likes and dislikes offer an indication of how engaged users are with the material, and politics seems to fall short here, too: Herman Cain’s widely mocked smoking ad has 8,620 downvotes (and 1.7 million views), but that’s pretty damn close to the figure for Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation” video, which has 6,105 dislikes (and almost 44 million views). You can argue that a lot of the energy that would go into rating politics videos goes instead into creating parody or reaction videos and memes, but even still, it’s hard to imagine even all of those combined could touch the kind of firestorm you see on the like/dislike meter and comment section of Bieber’s “Baby” video: 672 million views, a million likes, 2 million dislikes, and almost seven million comments. (In the minute or so between my clicking on the video and noting these figures, eight new comments were posted.)
The positive spin on this phenomenon is best summarized by Ethan Zuckerman’s “Cute Cats” theory, which posits that for any new technology to be useful politically, it must first become a successful platform for cute cat videos (and/or porn). By drawing people to a service that could be used for political participation and giving them the motivation to learn how to use it, YouTube’s entertainment content eventually produces more hooray-democracy moments than would have existed without it. That’s heartening, but it discounts the other things we learn about our fellow citizens through YouTube. On the one hand, our fellow citizens’ capacity for thoughtful, substantive, and productive engagement with public affairs and the political system is apparent; on the other hand, so is the fact that people spend the vast majority of their time watching videos of baby pandas sneezing and calling one another “fag” in the comments. That duality always existed, but YouTube, like the Internet in general, makes the contradiction so stark that it’s become impossible to ignore—even if, as is the case here, the metrics on which we’re basing that comparison are highly questionable.
And that’s why the narrative about Perry’s video being more disliked than Black’s is important. Certain critical opinions notwithstanding, Black’s publicly agreed-upon meaning is that of vapidity in its purest form, “where the talent wave finally broke and rolled back,” as even one admirer recently put it. The consensus is “Friday” is awful, and that caring so much is a bit embarrassing. If there was a way to prove that Americans cared more about Rick Perry’s repugnant and potentially harmful hate speech than Rebecca Black’s mildly annoying and unquestionably harmless pop, that would just be great news for democracy.
But even that was true, would it really make that much of a difference? After all, Perry’s ad would be just the exception that proved the rule. It may have reached the mountaintop, but every other political video is still scrambling up the foothills. And that’s as it should be. The reality is that the only time people are going to care more about politics than entertainment is when there is a clear and immediate threat to their well-being; if the military seized control of the federal government, you’d better believe people would spend less time watching Rihanna videos. Public enthusiasm for music videos and other entertainment can happily coexist with a healthy, functioning democracy. What’s important is not judging the two by the same standards. When gauging the importance of politics using the same market metrics that measure pop success, politics will always fall short. But that’s because politics isn’t important in the way “Friday” is—and thank heaven for that.