Editing and Youtube Culture at Play in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

26 Nov

If someone asked me to describe The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I am confident my answer would begin simply enough and quickly degenerate into an impossible to follow verbal diagram of diegeses: It is simultaneously a vlog, a fictional vlog, and a vlog about the making of a vlog. As I watched through the 60+ installments (plus the videos made by other characters, which although posted on different channels, maintain a linear relationship to the story and constitute a branching narrative tree like something out of Borges) I found myself failing to keep track of what kind of world the show was presenting itself as existing in. I was noticing this particularly on the level of editing. Editing as an idea comes up often in the show, both in conversation and in demonstration. We are made highly aware that Charlotte has manipulated the footage after it was taken, sometimes at Lizzie’s expense. On the other hand, the way that storytelling unfolds on the show is reliant upon a kind of non-editing: plenty of events, sometimes just tangential (such as Lydia’s appearances) but sometimes key (conversations with characters who unknowingly intrude during filming) survive the editing room floor despite their obviously unintended capture and sometimes quite sensitive nature.

Perhaps the most world-bending aspect of the show is that the editor herself is a main character. Charlotte’s presence thwarts any attempt we might make to “forget” about editing, to suspend disbelief by focusing on storyline over aesthetics. The fact that the show is a vlog permeates the boundary between form and content here. Watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is like watching a chicken hatch from the egg that you just saw it lay.

If anyone has an interpretation of this choice and what motivates it, please leave a comment – the question boggles my mind, but is also incredibly open. I do, however, see one of many answers lying within a set of preexisting traditions and conventions specific to Youtube. From my experience working on a Youtube series, Lizzie Bennet‘s obsession with editing is actually somewhat unsurprising.

Since purchasing Youtube, Google has slowly been converting it into another Hulu – a watchable database of copyrighted media designed to bring in profit. But this identity runs in absolute opposition to Youtube’s original mission to be a totally free and user-oriented space for individuals and small groups of amateurs to share and proliferate whatever they want. Despite the difficulty that amateur video makers face in Youtube’s new age given the strictness of copyright rules, Youtube’s original identity is certainly alive and well, and “Youtube culture” as such is an important part of Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Editing has always been a premier skill set in the Youtube world. Unlike writing or acting, which can be (though often poorly) done by an amateur, editing demands a specialized technological background for even the most basic tasks. If TV is a writer’s medium, then Youtube is certainly an editor’s medium – over the past four years, audio/visual quality and editing has become, more than any other part of production, a consistent and defining factor of success on Youtube.

I can only attribute Lizzie Bennet‘s thematization of editing as part of its natural desire to participate in Youtube as an institution. Though Mr. Collins is portrayed as being full of hot air, much of what he says about video making is true of Youtube: channels that do not produce “content, content, content” at a both rapid and regular pace (which LizzieBennet does – a new episode was uploaded about twelve hours ago for those who thought you were caught up). The frequent jump cuts in Lizzie’s monologue have been a global convention in the vlog format since sxephil and RayWilliamJohnson started using them in 2008. It is nevertheless an odd application of the cut, which was innovated for fast-paced comedy routines rather than fictional narrative, but the show seems to be inviting that kind of tension all around. The cut also traditionally serves to cull only the best material from a session of improvisation, but Lizzie Bennet is scripted (like Charlotte, the script makes frequent on-screen appearances), once more demonstrating how the cut here is not a necessary element, but is instead style at play – somewhere between an homage and a parody.

There is still endless room for interpretation, but what we can say at this point is that The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is as much about making a vlog as it is about Youtube itself (and hence also about editing). The  show’s ability to play with and innovate common Youtube practices speaks to how fast and how tight Youtube has grown as an artistic community in less than a decade. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries only confirms that Youtube videos are neither TV nor film, but an entirely new category of their own that already has a history, a future, and a living environment with its own demands and idiosyncrasies.

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One Response to “Editing and Youtube Culture at Play in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”

  1. elisabethsanders December 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    Re: jump cuts – not sure I agree with what you said about the origins and use of jump cuts in vlogs, that the cuts in the Lizzie Bennet Diaries are ” an odd application of the cut, which was innovated for fast-paced comedy routines rather than fictional narrative.” Single-narrator vlogs broken up by frequent jump cuts stretch as far back as “the show with ze frank” in 2006 (just before the rise of youtube as the main venue for vlogs!) and then was a prominent element of lonelygirl15, also beginning in 2006, which, like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, was a vlog-style work of fiction (though one that attempted to disguise itself as nonfiction). Lonelygirl15 didn’t foreground editing in the same way that The Lizzie Bennet Diaries does, because the editor wasn’t a character and the making of the show wasn’t also the subject of the show in the same way — but this style was born of both fiction and nonfiction early on, possibly because it’s a really nice way to have a single person narrate events without needing to narrate them with incredible continuity and flow.

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