In “Ghostly Matters,” Lisa Blackman writes,
The focus on allure, appeal and what commands attention within a media landscape increasingly shaped through an overload of information and ubiquitous, pervasive, networked media is of interest to organisational life and concerns. How to shape and “grab attention” and the relationship of this to regimes of remembering and forgetting, which govern what can be said and not said, seen and not-seen, felt but not easily articulated, extend studies of organisation and management processes into hauntological and affective realms.
I had just seen a Poppy video on Twitter. (Sorry. I feel bad for not diversifying my examples more. But an obsession is an obsession.) It was one of her collaborations with another YouTube channel, Good Mythical Morning. In this video, the duo Rhett (Rhett James McLaughlin) and Link (Charles Lincoln Neal III), two ordinary-looking silly guys, parody morning talk shows and “conventional vlog channels” (I feel like I owe it to you to put that in quotes somehow) such as PewPewDie. Videos bear titles such as “Temper Tantrum Yoga is a Real Thing,” “Nasty Food Spin the Bottle,” “Real Tech or ‘Black Mirror’ Fiction?”, and “We Covered Ourselves in Magnets.” The episode in question here is called “Will It Poppy?” Watching, I thought of two readings: Blackman, above, on affective and transmedial hauntings, and also Punday’s essay on narrative intrigue.
YouTube celebrity haunted by trauma is an intriguing proposition, and there is an excellent case for arguing Poppy as a prime example of this. This video in particular begs for such a reading positioned in the nexus of a web of YouTube celebrity that includes countless broadcasters such as Rhett and Link and the many thousands vying for your click time. Rhett and Link, like Poppy, mock a way of garnering attention that they simultaneously embody. This might be a hyperrealized form of Poe’s law, in which the entire affective experience of a YouTube video, or its channel in total, cannot be seen as either clearly within a genre of comedy or commentary or satirical of it–and that is the point of its appeal. This is not new with YouTube; Andy Kaufman was a master of it.
The Poppy project overall can be seen as transmedial storytelling, defined by Henry Jenkins as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (Convergence Culture, p. 108). Whether or not the unified and coordinated experience is successful, or even desired (it’s possible that a subversion of this might be the point), the implementation of it is by nature fragmentary and patchworky. Poppy, as another example of this, is yet another Patchwork Girl–but with very different affects/effects.
This video begins with Rhett and Link sitting at a table in outlandish costumes (Rhett dressed as some kind of flamboyant courtier and Link in Graham-Chaplinesque drag), asking “the age-old question” if “yarn will ramen.” They proceed to put what appears to be ramen noodles in bowls of soul which they slurp and put into their mouths, leaving ambiguity as to whether it is noodles or yarn. On the instance that they use chopsticks to lead the “noodles” to their mouths, ambient music begins, the camera backs up, and Poppy appears to their right. She says “if you give the people what they want, it will make them happy. It’s good to be happy. Give them what they want. ” Moving back to frame the duo, they ask “the question on everyone’s minds: cellular phones, will it nail?” and begin hammering two smartphones on the table. Their voice tones are flat and monotone, much like Poppy’s delivery. They say how much they are enjoying the “nailing” although their faces register no positive emotion. Poppy states that it’s important to have fun and that “they’ll have fun too…if they’re having fun they’ll give you a click,” meaning the viewers. She says “getting clicks will make you famous, it’s that easy.” Returning the focus to Rhett and Link, they appear at the table with the Mona Lisa, and ask another burning “question”: “The Mona Lisa, will it boomerang?” The painting moves out of frame and lands back in Link’s hands, to his apparent surprise, and he declares, “It will.” Then asking “but will it antigravity?”, the painting shoots up and out of frame, and all three look up. Poppy states, “Clicks will get you noticed” over and over while the ambient music turns disturbing and more disharmonic. She then lifts the Mona Lisa painting in front of her to hide her face, and suddenly appears to be on top of the table in front of Rhett and Link, in the place where they carried out their “experiments” with the ramen and smartphones. They announce their next question: “Poppy. Will it Poppy?” Pulling back the camera reveals two Poppies: the one on the table and the one to the right, watching herself. The watcher Poppy says, “Don’t stop doing what they love. If you don’t stop, they will give you clicks,” and then makes a series of mechanical, glitchy clicking sounds. Returning to the table, Rhett observes that Poppy’s shoe buckle isn’t fully buckled. The ambient music swells. Rhett says with apparent disappointment, “Poppy doesn’t Poppy,” and Link says, “she really doesn’t.” Cut to Poppy’ visibly crestfallen face and more ambient disharmonies. She says, “Poppy doesn’t Poppy? That’s too bad,” and blue paint begins to drip from her nostril, evoking an earlier video, “Am I OK?,” where blood began to drip from the same nostril. Rhett and Link raise their arms in creepy unison and finger the paint in her nostril. which they then taste simultaneously. (Bizarre food tasting videos are one of their themes.) The music turns harmonic, Rhett says, “hot sauce,” and Link declares, “I got chocolate.” They affirm that they like Poppy. Poppy smiles. The video ends with a plug for the That Poppy YouTube channel.
Poppy is a host for a haunting, or perhaps a host for several or even many hauntings. First, to return to the top of this page, she is an icon of Blackman’s quote in a way. Whether or not we personally find her appealing or interesting–New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz does not, much to the rage of her fans, the Poppy Seeds–she has media allure and traction for many millions of viewers. Blackman implies that those entities with allure and attention-grabbing potential are potent hosts for haunting via the internet. Blackman defines hauntology “ a particular place in the lives of oppressed and marginalized peoples and those suffering from traumatic memories that blur the historical and the personal and the past and present.” Quoting Gordon, she elucidates:
The ghost might be said to be a different kind of social figure, which is both ‘there and not there, past and present, force and shape’ (Gordon, 2008: 6). It takes form and crops up in places, relations and shapes, which exert agency or an affective force without obvious definition. The ghost requires a host; someone, something or perhaps a controversy, which allows it to surface and demand our attention.
On the most obvious level, Poppy is a host for her collaborator Titantic Sinclair’s former partner, Mars Argo. Their channel grocerybagtv.com now only houses three videos where there were once dozens and a web series called “The Computer Show” featuring her and Titantic commenting on their lives, work, and society in the age of the internet. After she and Sinclair split and stopped producing videos, she created a video called “Everybody Wants It All” housed on the channel of her friend Tony Katai. It’s no longer there, but it’s been uploaded here. (Warning: it disturbs me to watch this, and it features her holding a gun to her head and throwing up something that looks like blood.) This video has been the focus of many conspiracy theories by fans, and entire channels have created reputations discussing it (see Repzilla and Where’s Mars Argo?). Fans reversed the slowed-down speech at the end of the video, revealing a hidden message. The Poppy videos by Sinclair began to emerge shortly around or after this video posted. Over time, the Poppy videos began to apparently make thinly veiled references to “Everybody Wants It All,” including but not limited to Poppy’s ambient EP album “3:36” (apparently a reference to the length of Argo’s video), “Chewing Gum” (a song recorded by Poppy supposedly referring to Argo’s gum chewing and interactions with her “friend” in the video). a song recorded by Poppy called “Everybody Wants It All” that refers to “guns, gold, and control,” and the short “Am I OK?“, a rambling take on “rebooting” oneself that ends with a smiling, unphased Poppy dripping blood from one nostril–which is later invoked by the “Will It Poppy?” video above. The emergence of Poppy as a YouTube celebrity seems to “pop” up in fragments hinting at, pointing toward, the Mars Argo trauma, whatever that may have been. Since neither Poppy nor Titanic will discuss any of this, and since Mars Argo has been effaced from media except for a few artifacts (unclear how much of her own agency was involved in this), fans and critics have constructed various narratives to heal their own sense of dis-ease–only seeming to increase the popularity or at least “clickability” of all three.
There is a lot to parse here, but Blackman’s hauntology seems very fitted to these works. The “rebooting” trope in “Am I OK?” has been extended to be a major component of Poppy’s persona, to the extreme that one recent article in the NYT referred to her non-ironically as a “fembot” (Hess). A recent interview of Sinclair by Dom’s Sketch Cast featured a discussion about machines and ghosts. This should jump to the moment.
So “ghost in the machine” is something that they think about and this seems like a clear shoutout to at least an implicit theory that internet content harbors hosts for ghosts and their traumas–and, as Poppy says, “I am the internet” and “I live in the internet.”
The Punday article speaks of digital narratives as having intrigue by design. He quotes Aarseth’s reference to authors and readers as “intriguers” and “intriguees.” While Punday did not make explicit reference to transmedial storytelling, transmedial storytelling through multiple YouTube channels, music albums and videos, and a television pilot, as well as through auxiliary channels such as multiple Twitter and Instagram accounts–not to mention the commenting, fan art contributions, and so on–and eventually, mainstream media coverage–is the hallmark of Poppy. To anyone who doesn’t understand “the rules” of the game here, which comprise knowing how YouTube celebrity generally “works,” what the conventions are, how they are commonly broken and how they evolve, how content appears and vanishes from the internet, how it can be retrieved or hacked, for a start, Poppy seems like just bad art or nonsense. It is, however, a peculiar kind of 21st-century storytelling occurring simultaneously on many levels, and it seems to be driven by a haunting, a trauma–whether real or contrived is still hard to say.
A few additional thoughts:
The song “My Style” on Poppy.Computer has the lyrics “Poppy is an object. Poppy is your best friend.” The “Will It Poppy?” video puts at least one version of Poppy on the table as an object to be experienced, experimented upon, and consumed for the pleasure of the internet in exchange for clicks. This is a “haunt” of Mars Argo, who seemed more “real” than Poppy but was also objectified on her path to internet celebrity, and it didn’t end well.
The objectification of Poppy is also a “haunt” of many media celebrities who have been objectified as desired objects, only to be discarded when they did not live up to expectations of viewers (when they “don’t Poppy”). And this is the explicit premise of the YouTube Red pilot, “It’s Poppy.”
Blackman, Lisa. “Haunted Data, Transmedial Storytelling, Affectivity: Attending to ‘Controversies’ as Matters of Ghostly Concern.” Ephemera: theory and politics in organisation, 2017. (In Press) http://research.gold.ac.uk/21771/
Punday, Daniel. “Narration, Intrigue, and Reader Positioning in Electronic Narratives.” Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, vol. 4, 2012, pp. 25–47. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/stable/10.5250/storyworlds.4.2012.0025