Monday, May 5, 2014

Social media and its positive effects on negative charisma

I have been thinking lately about this thing called negative charisma. It sounds like a contradiction of terms because you might think, and rightly so, that the negative would cancel out the charisma. One is a positive, the other is a negative, therefore we end up back where we started. But it turns out that’s not always the case. So, one wonders, what exactly is this negative charisma, this paradoxical thing that can so blatantly defy the rules of mathematics?

Negative charisma is a quality that explains how people who are physically, psychologically, and/or ideologically unattractive still manage to capture our attention. Think Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David: Patron saint of negative charisma?

...Or people who can walk into a room and magically tick off half the people in it, without uttering a word.  And don't pretend you haven't encountered such folks. I have thought about such qualities a fair bit as for as long as I can remember have held an interest in the things that fall just outside of the defined categories. The things that don’t quite make it, either because they are too provocative and boundary-pushing, or aren’t provocative in the right way, or simply aren’t deemed good enough…however ‘good’ is defined at that particular time by the person doing the defining.

In a world of few broadcast networks and mass and largely undifferentiated audiences, negative charisma was pretty much the kiss of death. It didn’t look good, it didn’t make people feel good, and generally was something most people did not want to be associated with. Sure, there were exceptions, but for the most part there wasn’t much of a career to build on the ability to turn people off. I think this is a fine example of where and how Internet-distributed content differs. You may have heard the phrase “made for social media” used, to describe people who, regardless of their actions, have a gift for garnering attention. 

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford would be a prime example of such a talent. Though repeatedly under attack in the media and often captured in stills and video in states of inebriation and intoxication related to a variety of substances, he never shied away from the camera. Ford kept on posing for ‘selfies’ with seemingly everyone he encountered, his image circulating almost non-stop on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Whether it was election season or not Mr. Ford kept on putting his arm around people he’d just met and mugging for their smartphone, and in turn putting the image into the orbit of everyone in their social networks.

 But not everybody has a career in politics on their mind. Some just want to get attention, and to see if they can turn whatever talents they possess, even if it’s a talent for making people alternately think such thoughts as ‘what a despicable character’ or ‘this guy is nuts’. Which brings us to 20 year old Michael Kittrell of Grayson, Georgia⁠, population 2700. Kitrell, whose YouTube channel is called CopperCab, is one foul-mouthed and angry young man. He is a defiant and, if you don’t mind me saying so, kind of doughy redhead. In his videos he delivers monologues to the camera, in which we see him flying into some pretty extreme rages, screaming and spitting and sometimes issuing threats to commenters. It feels like the spectacle of wrestling meets your loudmouth neighbor.

And as they are inclined to do, the crew at South Park jumped into the ring by incorporating the ranting redhead from the Internet into one of their own story lines.

And those autotune the news guys the Gregory Brothers then immortalized the angry ginger in song and in video, creating an iTunes hit and a video that’s received over 6 million views

Kittrell himself has four YouTube channels and close to 150 million views across them. And view counters don’t lie. There’s an audience for what he’s putting out there. He himself revealed that he has earned a lot of money from his YouTube videos.

The phenomenon of the angry ginger on YouTube, which started in early 2010, eventually became big enough to get noticed by reality TV show producer David Weintraub (Celebrity Rehab, Sober House). Hoping that things do indeed happen in threes Weintraub likely figured Honey Boo Boo, that’s one, Duck Dynasty, that’s two, and YouTube’s CopperCab aka Michael Kittrell for the trifecta. And just like that, Kittrell, along with his Grandma Mema, his Uncle John, and his Aunt Dee Dee, were offered their own reality show. The posse packed their bags and headed to Los Angeles with the goal of capitalizing on Kittrell’s YouTube fame and seeing how far things could go. Hollywood Hillbillies debuted on the U.S. cable channel Reelz in January 2014 and after an initial brief run received an order for ten new episodes to be broadcast in the summer of 2014.

The angry ginger's grandma: happy to have hot water
The Los Angeles Times called the show “…at once celebratory and dismissive of both rural Georgia and Los Angeles. Still, Grandma Mema’s wants are modest. “I didn’t have heat in this house till I got this show!”, she exclaimed. “I had a hot water heater put in…I was really in a mess until I got this show.”⁠

Will Hollywood Hillbillies become a TV classic? Or have a ten year run? Probably not, but in the example of this journey from the CopperCab channel on YouTube to the Hollywood Hillbillies reality show we see the ability of YouTube to provide a viable platform for talent scouting. What began on the margins with no budget and probably no plan was given a shot at mainstream success just a few years later. And yes, the concept has been significantly retooled in the hands of television producers and we meet quite a different version of the angry ginger in front of the Hollywood cameras than we met in front of his own camera, or possibly phone, in small town Georgia. But the fact remains that a product and a market were created in a way that no one would have expected. And both were able to be developed and tested in an environment that had zero cost to the uploader and zero cost to the broadcaster. (The Internet bandwidth and streaming costs are borne by Google-owned YouTube, so while YouTube may still not be turning a profit, having a parent company with annual revenues in excess of $50 billion makes it all possible.) Still, there was no guarantee that what worked in the environment of YouTube — i.e. short, on demand clips that are viewed and re-viewed, publicly commented upon, and then shared on social media — would work in the environment of television, but the risk is greatly reduced with the level of awareness that comes with 150 million views. And don’t forget the bonus bumps that come from the references and parodies on South Park and from the Gregory Brothers. Both contain the most vital ingredient in the social media secret sauce, and that’s the currency derived from talking about and sharing a piece of content.

Kittrell may have been made for social media, where the laughing at, not laughing with, ‘car crash’ quotient goes a long way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his fifteen minutes end there. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned for this summer’s run of Hollywood Hillbillies and keep our eyes open for any future appearances from the guy who took his ranting in the backyard, negative charisma game all the way to the big city. And with more than just a little showbiz grooming along the way. 

Related Posts: 
Infomercials in the time of YouTube
Remembering ROFLcon, or when the weird ruled the Internet

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