An essay for my Media Theory class using the lens of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”
The integration of various media platforms after discovering an oasis for economic surge through the Internet remains consistent with the theory of the culture industry of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, their statement about how culture infects “everything with sameness” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012) continues to ring true in the age of the Internet. Their theory based on this work is the cornerstone of this essay.
From popular culture to politics, individuals and institutions prioritize claiming their own space in the world wide web to brand themselves without directly passing through the approval of the ruling class and their more traditional machinery. The information and communications technology (ICT) era paved way to opportunities never before widely available to those coming from the grassroots – with the readily accessible Internet and their own form of self-branding as their main capital. Companies big or small are now shifting toward the same route: claiming their space in the Internet for a chance to thrive. The next step is to collect a significant number of patrons known as subscribers, in the case of YouTube, or followers, in the case of Facebook and other social media sites (Cirucci, 2019). For about a decade now, subscribers, followers, likers, and sharers in blogs, social media, websites, podcasts, and video blogs have become new currencies.
With the discovery of pioneering Internet personalities’ tried-and-tested formula to succeed in cyberspace, more and more online personas follow suit. The capitalist development of the Internet may seem changed on the surface (particularly its technological side), but deep inside, the system has never really changed. In the case of Internet stars Ryan Kaji of Ryan’s World and Nuseir Yassin of Nas Daily, their successes have already contributed much to the culture industry in just a few years – cashing in with their own merchandise items, brand partnerships, and other business ventures (Kelemen, 2019; Weiss, 2016), which have long been only made available to traditional celebrities chosen by the big companies and media conglomerates.
Ryan Kaji and Nuseir Yassin: Gathering the Facts on Their Claim to Fame and Fortune
According to Forbes, the Asian-American YouTube kid celebrity known by his screen name Ryan Kaji of the Ryan’s World brand (formerly Ryan ToysReview) became the highest-paid YouTube star with reported $22 million earnings and 17 million subscribers in 2018 (Robehmed & Berg, 2018). The YouTube channel started in 2015 after the then three-year-old, Texas-born Ryan asked his mother for his own toy unboxing video like other kids he watched in YouTube. Although the initial videos didn’t readily get viral, one particular video did so in about four months with its number of views doubling with every passing month (Popper, 2016). After this, everything is history. From starting with the YouTube “unboxing” genre, the channel has grown into a full-blown brand of children’s videos featuring the Kaji family’s antics, games, and travels, while also showcasing educational videos where Ryan typically sings children’s songs, completes challenges, and conducts science experiments fitting his age – all ending with “Always stay happy and rise up. Bye!” Ryan now receives millions of dollars not only through the cumulative earnings from his main YouTube channel and its allied channels but also through his own line of toys, clothing, home goods, and collectibles available in both physical and online stores including Walmart, Target, and Amazon, a TV show in Nickelodeon, software applications and games for various platforms, a family-owned production company (‘About – Ryan’s World’, 2020), among many other mini-mogul projects for this kidfluencer (Berg, 2019). As of October 2020, his YouTube channel has over 1,800 videos and 26.9 million subscribers (‘Ryan’s World – YouTube’, 2020).
For the Harvard graduate Nuseir Yassin who describes himself as a Palestinian-Israeli citizen, his claim to fame started in 2016 when he decided to quit his high-paying job as a coder in the PayPal-owned money-transfer app Venmoto produce daily one-minute travel videos uploaded in Facebook (Perper, 2018). Keeping up with his 1,000-day commitment to explore different countries, this nomadic social media influencer’s Facebook page Nas Daily began uploading a series of escapist portraits of humanity across cultures in the style of a coffee-table book in capsule video format. A year after, the viral videos that would always end with “That’s 1 minute, see you tomorrow!” already received 500,000 likes and 25 million views on Facebook (Baker, 2017). Since then, he expanded his reach by going to other popular online platforms including Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Spotify (‘Nas Daily’, 2020), while also maintaining the Singapore-based headquarters of his fast-growing start-up company (Calubayan, 2019). In its four months of operation, the Nas Daily brand reportedly brought in $1 million to the Singaporean economy (Salim, 2019). The Wealthypersons website reported his 2020 net worth as $500,000 (Bleznak, 2020). As of October 2020, his Facebook page has over 17.7 million followers and 8 million people likes (‘Nas Daily | Facebook’, 2020).
Ryan’s World and Nas Daily: An Analysis of The Pressure to Conform
It is said that all technological developments, including those in communication and media, are developed in service of the ruling class (Marx & Engels, 2012). The Internet is no exception. For Ryan’s World and Nas Daily, their move towards the commercial system is an expected outcome of achieving the Internet celebrity status. YouTube and Facebook require them to comply with their rules (‘What Facebook video content is eligible for monetization?’, 2020; ‘YouTube channel monetization policies’, 2020), forcing them to produce more and more content. To keep up with the lifestyle changes brought about by their fame and fortune, they need to expand their reach the way the rules of capitalism work.
To survive and thrive, becoming Internet celebrities or influencers have primarily become a business (Liew, 2019). It is now used as an ideology to legitimize the production of cultural commodities. Resistance to the incorporation to the dominating ideological system would risk their survival in the dog-eat-dog-world of their business ventures. They are now ingrained in the entertainment business where gaining profit is clearly an ideology. In their continuous expansion, the element of repetition hinges on amusement to keep their patrons engaged (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012). In fabricating entertainment commodities, their loyal subscribers and followers, particularly the masses who economically have much less than them, escape their real lives during their leisure times by consistently indulging in these video spectacles offered to them. In watching them, they thwart genuine self-realization and re-route their authentic desires toward commodified forms of leisure or play (Debord, 2012). In doing so, these spectators can better cope with the challenges of their realities. Indeed, the mass consumption of the giant mystery eggs Ryan featured in one of his videos, as well as the frenetic local street food moment in a Southeast Asian country in one of the Nas Daily videos, become sensitive instruments of social and economic control.
Under the pressure of the system, the Ryan’s World and Nas Daily brands continue to create cultural commodities to serve their own economic needs, as well as those higher than them. In general, the stereotypical and duplicating nature of rehashed content makes it possible to efficiently produce a continuous flow of cultural products for mass consumption. At this point, these content creators need to acknowledge that their cultural products are now “elements of the culture industry.” In the mechanical repetitions seen from the videos they continue to produce, their subscribers and followers change their behavioral functions based on their consumption of their video content. The more deeply entrenched they are, the more deeply the culture industry permeates in their midst. Instead of activating their minds, these patrons who are hooked on mostly small screens turn out to be more passive while entertained, as they seek for more to consume. Indulging in these videos and their allied cultural commodities subordinates them with the industry’s formula. Clearly, “The consumer becomes the ideology of the amusement industry, whose institutions he or she cannot escape.” They get used to them and actually get numbed by their power to entertain, which can eventually lead to “a state of distraction.” These consumables, which tend to debar them of thinking, may seem different on the surface, but in context, they utilize mostly rehashed elements that are often easily dumped like tin can right after consumption (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012). The cycle goes on: produce, consume, throw, repeat.
The economic machinery of the mass culture makes a conducive digital atmosphere for subscribers and followers to feel they belong, as they find something in common with the household names Ryan and Nuseir (often addressed by his fans as Nas) (Ferrante, 2018). In watching their videos more, they also become more accustomed to react, discuss, and share their content and merchandise items with others. These patrons believe they are knowledgeable about the popular and they feel a sense of achievement in climbing up a false ladder leading to success. This addresses the culture industry’s ways of making them feel that sense of belongingness and that false impression of a unified culture. They try their best to never miss a video and buy the latest toy or the iconic Nas shirt to conform, to belong, and to be amused. Like Ryan and Nas, they need to sustain their own clout as subscribers and followers by indulging themselves with the videos they watch on a regular basis. There is enhanced prestige in knowing more about the Internet celebrities they follow and owning their branded goods. Indeed, “The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012).
For kids following Ryan’s World, Ryan is a friend as parents reported their children talking to him as if he’s at home with them (Schmidt, 2017). For people following Nas Daily, their viewing experiences and the branded goods they possess become an extension of themselves (Belk, 1988). In watching branded and often templated videos that are no less calculated for more likes, shares, subscriptions, and media coverage, the spectator feels they have become Ryan or Nas who played with those toys or explored those places. For agreeable parents who have the means to, they buy the toys and recreate the experiences of Ryan and his family. For Nas Daily viewers, those who have the means to travel go to the same places out of curiosity and enjoyment and document themselves in similar fashion, or even make their own versions of exact or deliberately deviant videos pegged from Nas’ content. Meanwhile, people who are not financially capable of these try to accept the reality that watching these videos is the most they can do. They take the hint that reality will not make them Ryan or Nas, but following their adventures will make them feel like they are just like them, while rejecting the idea that they cannot really be like them because the chances of mimicking their successes are slim and these influencers turn out more like the chosen (or lucky) ones who started from the ground up. The spectators are just like Ryan and Nas, but at the end of it, they are not them. Indeed, the culture industry provides people with naive identification, then immediately denies it (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012).
The industry molds its customers and employees as objects to be reduced to a certain formula to serve the greater interests of the dominating class. In implementing audience standardization and mass production, culture merged with advertising becomes such a paradoxical commodity (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012).
Ryan and Nas: Understanding Their Adherence to the Culture Industry
Ryan Kaji’s brand Ryan’s World (although Ryan’s ToysReview still rings a bell for those who grew up with this original brand) and Nuseir Yassin’s brand Nas Daily have already gained much leverage to dominate their target markets in a consumerist society, as reflected on the household names Ryan and Nas being the key components of their popularity.
Although the initial decisions leading to their successes came from their own efforts with the Internet as their conduit, the need for further successes means becoming part of the culture industry and embracing its terms. Their more independent spirits as victorious (or some may say lucky) starters need to evolve and adjust to the routine decisions of those dominating the culture industry – institutions they now agreed to collaborate with, especially in economic terms. Such collaborations reflect the theory of the culture industry as they intend to sustain themselves in their current economic, social, and cultural positions and move forward from them. They have to live up to the ideologies of today. They may not always advocate these ideologies and they may try to advocate other things using the powers they have as content creators, but the way they initiate their advocacies is still confined within the rules of the trade.
The Internet may have opened new doors for those in the grassroots, but entering any of those doors means agreeing to the requirements of sameness in the terms of the culture industry and living by its instruments of control (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012) because moving forward demands the acknowledgment of the hierarchical nature of the capitalist system.
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