Monday, November 7, 2011

Disney, YouTube and Identity

The New York Times reported today that Disney and YouTube have sealed a partnership in which Disney will produce video shorts to be distributed through a co-branded YouTube and Disney web site.  The Times goes on to note that Disney hopes this deal will enable it to stem the loss of visitors to its website, This decline in visits has led to lead to $300 million financial loss over the last year for its online division, Disney Interactive. The deal represents a turnabout for Disney, which has up to now pursued a “go it alone” web strategy.

One could look at this as a simple business deal, a tactic in pursuit of higher profits. But it is useful to consider what is it that Disney represents as a cultural institution. Disney’s film franchise is rooted in fairy tales.  Fairy tales are morality plays that help children differentiate between good and evil and assure the child, that despite the dangers of childhood, there are beneficent adults who will protect them as long as they are good and dutiful. So Little Red Riding Hood should be wary of dangers in the forest, but should she be attacked, a good woodsman will come to her rescue. Cinderella will find her prince despite the evil machinations of her stepsisters and stepmother, if she remains uncomplaining and cheery.  It is also helpful to note that the Grimm brothers published their fairy tales as one venue for creating a shared German language and culture, for linking families to a wider world.

What this suggests to me is that fairy tales are one avenue through which children can take up an identity offered to them by the adult world. They learn what it means to be good within a cultural landscape adults have fashioned, and they can identify their own aspirations for a good life with the fairy tale heroes who live “happily ever after.” We can think of this process as one through which adults confer an identity on children by first scaring them, and then offering them a formula for living in plentitude.

YouTube presents an entirely different proposition; it provides no master narrative of good and evil. By enabling visitors to sample, scan and search, it asks them, “What kind of person are you?” “What motivates you?” “What in this wooly combination of funny, fictional, instructional, professional and amateur videos that gives you the greatest pleasure and the most meaning?” Instead of conferring identity, it helps children explore identities. The web, as Sherry Turkle reminds us in several of her books, is a marketplace of identities.  Looked at from this perspective, one can see why might be failing, why the number of visitors to its site is falling, and why it is losing money. It is approaching its future through the rear view mirror of the master narrative.

Lacan, the psychoanalyst, argued that a child is not a person until he takes on “the name of the father.” This play on the words of the Catholic Catechism, suggests that that a child becomes a person only when he internalizes the cultural meanings of the adult world, represented by the father, or more generally the “paternal function,” which is the parents’ representation of the human world beyond the family. It is a world of cruelty as well as kindness, a world of indifference as well as care. It is the world of grown-ups.  But what happens when fathers or more generally adults no longer believe that they can be effective guides. Is their role then to facilitate the child’s naming of himself, while the social media becomes a tool for finding names?

This raises another practical business question. In positioning the new website can the partners, Disney and YouTube really carve out an intermediate space between receiving an identity and exploring an identity? Can you co-brand master narratives with a process of searching, hyperlinking and free-associating? The logic of this augment would suggest no. This does not auger well for the partnership’s success.

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