Presenting Princess Shaw is a recent PBS Point of View (POV) film with a digital humanities focus about the human experience of the social media site, YouTube. The documentary film represents the reality of the struggles and perseverance of Samantha Montgomery also known as Princess Shaw, who is a musician living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She employs YouTube as a video diary to tell her version of the impact of her current socioeconomic background and being a woman musician. Her YouTube channel is also a presentation platform to debut her songs.
The film introduces Israeli producer Ophir Kutiel also known by his YouTube handle, Kutiman, performing at the Guggenneim Museum in New York City. Kutiman’s YouTube videos are comprised of remixes of work by amateur YouTube performers. Kutiman does not tell the musicians that he is sampling their videos. Instead they find out from the links, likes, and comments that come after Kutiman posts the video live on YouTube. Princess Shaw’s videos of her songs become the main focus of Kutiman’s multi-monitor setup. As the documentary unfolds, I could pick out elements that are related to the current digital humanities dialog, such as network culture and free culture.
It is commonly understood that the network culture is how Kutiman found Princess Shaw’s videos and songs. I am referring to the open content accessibility of the World Wide Web that has structured this social network. Presenting Princess Shaw documentary was released in 2015 and is explored from an individual perspective of how YouTube is a communication platform for diverse voices. Comparing 2015 with the current state of YouTube’s stricter guidelines and corporate ideals of monetization, the social media site seems to be narrowing the initial online engagement concepts for those who have fewer views. Kutiman does not monetize his channel or commercially sell the remix of videos; his remixes are within the context of free culture.
Free Culture implies that works can be spread and re-used in creative ways or are to be freely studied. Our current advances in digital technology make it possible to distribute and modify various forms of digital materials and information. The PBS POV educational guides that accompany the documentary present the free culture movement and where it stands with copyright protections. Net neutrality is the second concern for the future of the free culture movement. The summer of 2017 brings the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposing to reverse the current net neutrality laws that make Internet service providers treat all Internet content equally. If this reversal moves forward web content can be blocked and the regulation of broadband service by providers will inhibit the availability of some high-speed Internet service.
When Princess Shaw begins to receive messages about Kutiman’s recent post on YouTube she is taken back by the video remix that includes her song. Princess Shaw is able to share Kutiman’s video with her cousin during her visit that was within the same timeframe. In this segment of the documentary, Princess Shaw’s cousin comments on how witnessing this moment with her is like “history.” The cousin was referring to Princess Shaw’s individual history of achieving success with her song writing, but history can also be consider on a broader spectrum. The evolution of the Internet is at a crossroads with the current changes implied to free culture. This is by net neutrality laws and individual social media sites that are narrowing their guidelines for individual content. In addition to the film representing Princess Shaw’s individual engagement with YouTube, the documentary film also represents a moment in Internet history that concerns free culture, along with the spanning reach of network culture.
The documentary does depict Princess Shaw’s struggles in her local music scene and how she tries to branch out into Atlanta, Georgia to perform at open mic nights. There are absences in the documentary of how Princess Shaw balances her day job as a caregiver for the elderly with her creative work time as a musician. This is an everyday struggle for artists who have to work for a living, while trying to maintain an active pursuit of a creative practice. Some of the challenges from working at various forms of employment are fatigue from extended hours at work and the ability to have a flexible schedule. This element was brought to my attention by the ending scene of the film.
The final scene shows Princess Shaw back at her home in New Orleans getting ready to go to her place of employment. Visually the ending brings me back to the introduction of Princess Shaw’s background. Wearing her caregiver scrubs, she walks past her car that is still on cement blocks with no tires and through her neighborhood to work. With the understanding that there was no monetary gain from her recent musical experience with Kutiman, I question has the free culture movement challenged conventional ideas of success and stardom. The network culture can be view as redefining personal success as having the opportunity to collaborate with other musicians and sing in front of a mass audience. These related opportunities give the ability to achieve personal goals that come from specific experiences. The documentary’s ending scene can be viewed openly as a depiction that Princess Shaw is content with her own personal success and will continue to balance her current employment with her continuation as a active musician employing social media. As digital culture proceeds at a quicker pace, we will see how the human experience of success will continue to evolve from the Internet’s complex development with net neutrality and individual open content limitations.
By: Carrie Ida Edinger
Carrie’s interest with new media is in interdisciplinary methods and the use of the Internet as a presentation site for evolving contemporary projects.