This one time, I was in a video that went viral on the Internet. It got a million views. A million people saw a tiny sliver of my face in a group performing a spirited rendition of “Carol of the Bells” on a Metro-North train, while the train conductor conducted the singing.
This other time, I was in a crowd of a million people. It was President Obama’s first inauguration and the crowd was plenty spirited. They ate every hot dog, drank every bottle of water, saturated every establishment that might possibly have heating or a bathroom, trampled every incidence of plant life, poured into the train tracks, consumed the city and trashed it in their exuberance.
To think that a million people (now two!) watched that video of my friends and me singing on a train, a million people with all their great and destructive power, gives me a sense of pride amidst a sense of unease. It’s affirming because we must’ve been something exciting to attract that kind of audience. But what audience? Where are they?
The Yale Glee Club, the group that I’m in, is used to performing in front of an audience. We traditionally begin every concert by running through the aisles, emerging from the audience, animated and breathless. Alumni from the audience join us on stage for Yale songs. Yalies in the audience wave hankies with us in messy unison during the alma mater. At the end, we filter back into the house. The fourth wall that separates performer from viewer, loose from the start, falls away completely.
Not so with a video. You perform for an apparatus and the displaced, virtual you performs for a viewer. You don’t get to hear the audience breathing or laughing or clapping. They may be completely alone while watching your performance. The fourth wall is literalized, a screen capturing a scene the viewer could not have witnessed. Access to some intimate space a distant impossibility. What the viewer sees is memory, a gift from a different time and space.
But, of course, I have my own memories from that night of singing on the train. Every year the Glee Club sings a holiday concert at the Yale Club in New York, after which we run over to Grand Central for a bit of public caroling, a minor confrontation with the cops, (“Is holiday cheer illegal?”) and a mass, often musical migration toward the train platform. Then, the best part. The party train.
We take over the last car of the train. For the next two hours, we stand on the seats and wildly sing every song that anyone remembers. Carols, spirituals, folk songs, Yale songs, anything. The quality of the singing quickly degrades as voices wear out and tire but we don’t care. We aren’t performing. By then, we have no audience but each other.
But, last Friday, we put our performance faces back on for a second so that we could take this video with Bob, our train conductor. We start singing a lifeless version of “Here We Come A-Wassailing” when Bob burst onto the screen. “No, no,” he says, “we already did that one!” He cues up the chorus and launches us into a lively “Carol of the Bells.” At the end, we clap and cheer and Bob takes a theatrical bow. Bob thanks us, posts it on his Facebook and promptly, it explodes.
Two million viewers! My mind stops working at a million. Did each of the million people watch it simultaneously? Certainly not. Did they each watch it alone? I can’t know. There is something indirectly communal about viral videos. Everybody sees them even if they don’t see them together. They become temporary cultural touchstones and sources of shared experience in their ability to be recounted and re-enacted in later conversation. They are meant to be remembered. In a weird way, I feel out of the loop regarding the viral video that I’m in. I can’t be in the audience because I’m on the other side of the fourth wall. The video tries to give me a memory but I already have my own.
Two million viewers! Well, two million views, which doesn’t necessarily mean so many distinct viewers. I do know that my grandma watched that video a hundred times looking for the sliver of my face. “There I am!” I tell her, pointing with a fingernail. I was definitely there, second row, right side, sitting down, mostly blocked. I’m definitely still there.