“In order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it,” Eco observed. Casablanca offers a compendium of genre cruxes, assembled by multiple directors and writers who didn’t even know how it would end when they began filming. YouTube is the next phase of this evolution: a pre-dismantled hodgepodge whose greatest hits, like classic movie lines, take on countless afterlives.
Most online video offerings aspire neither to art nor originality, but to likes, shares, tributes, clicks, eyeballs and interactions. It’s a way of giving the world back to itself to play with – and the most crucial story of all is not what happens onscreen, but what happens if clip meets world and world falls in love with clip.
There’s also a safety in numbers that suspends every other kind of nagging question. If a million people can’t be wrong, then a billion can render right and wrong irrelevant: this much sharing lends whatever you may be watching (and whatever you may feel moved to create in response) a perfect legitimacy.
At its best, it’s a joyful process, and joyfully ephemeral. For five minutes, we are embraced by the warmth of cult experience – the moment shared, the code of access and veneration – without the sinister inconvenience of self-mortification or ranting religion. The viewing preferences of one year may not amount to a hill of beans. But we’ll always have Gangnam Style.