The Economics of (In)Attention in YouTube Shakespeare

Christy Desmet, University of Georgia


Economic metaphors have long been used as shorthand for the aesthetic, literary, cultural, or rhetorical value of Shakespearean appropriations: Shakespeare possesses and confers cultural capital; he is "big-time" art (Bristol 1996). Economic metaphors are also central to discussion of the cultural dynamics of Web 2.0: we live in an information economy and are driven by an economics of attention, as defined by Richard A. Lanham (2006). Since its founding in May 2005, YouTube has sought to exploit the economics of attention by linking "real" dollars to a video's ability to attract viewers. YouTube, however, has never been profitable, so that the economics of attention on the site has become a self-perpetuating phenomenon — artistic and social, without conferring capital. This essay suggests as well a further revision to YouTube's participation in the economics of attention. Particularly in the case of amateur YouTube Shakespeare appropriations, the site's dynamics operate through a dialectic between the art of creating and consuming attention structures and a residual resistance to the compulsion to get and give attention. Central to the experience of the bard on YouTube is a complementary economics of (in)attention.

YouTube $$$$

Founded in 2005, YouTube was bought by Google on 9 October 2006 for $1.76 billion, an event that raised significantly economic expectations for the video-sharing site. But doubts about YouTube's ability to make money were raised early — as early as 2006. The site's economic strategy has been compared to that of Starbucks, which spends lavishly on interior decorating to provide a free hangout in which users are willing to pay premium prices for coffee; YouTube is like Starbucks, but without the coffee ("The trouble with YouTube" 2006). It provides free amenities to video uploaders but has nothing of its own to sell — no way to make "real" money.
A comparison between YouTube and rival Hulu in 2008 reported that "YouTube serves an enormous volume (reportedly 1 billion plus downloads a day) of small files (around 2.75 minutes on average) at a low ad-inventory fill ratio — only 3-4 of videos carry advertising at all — and low CPMs (around $10, if that)" — CPM being the cost outlay per one thousand views. ("How Does YouTube Make Money?" 2008)1 YouTube seemed poised to make money, if it had not done so so far. In 2009, however, Credit Suisse "estimated YouTube's operating losses" for the year "would reach $470 million" (Marsden 2009). In 2012, Korean artist Psy's instantly viral blockbuster, "Gangnam Style," garnered over 1 billion views and became "the most viewed video in the entire history of YouTube. Yet this has made Psy, the artist behind it, just $870,000 . . . This comes out to a measly 0.1 cents per viewing of the video" ("Economics of Being" 2012). The argument has been made that while YouTube may not make money, it supports the parent company Google by strengthening its data-gathering capabilities and indirectly by strengthening Google's bargaining position (through economic losses) with adversarial copyright holders.
Integration was taken a step further with the syncing of YouTube channels with Google+. But problems have persisted with the two-pronged mode in which advertisers funnel dollars to the video-sharing site, while YouTube supplies the advertisers with eyeballs (Farchy 2009). Between 2011 and 2013, consequently, YouTube had begun moving toward a more traditional economic model, creating privileged partners who earn large advertising dollars and produce viral videos.2 At the same time, YouTube made overtures to Hollywood aimed at including copyrighted content and targeted independent filmmakers for seed grants. In 2013, YouTube was preparing to move further into a traditional economic arrangement by offering subscription channels ("YouTube preparing" 2013). But not that much has changed. In 2016, it is easy to find websites and YouTube videos explaining how to make money via the Tube. On 10 August 2015, for instance, the website Bustle offered an article explaining how professional YouTubers — those who make their living in this medium — make their money (Kachroo-Levine 2015); subscriptions to the creators' channels and organized opportunities for donations were important factors in the economics of YouTube. A short piece in Business Insider (Jacobs 2014) also chronicled the independent YouTubers who were gathering the most money. But while the buzz over YouTube entrepreneurs persists, profits apparently have not increased for the company. The Wall Street Journal, in its 2015 assessment of YouTube's financial health, reported that YouTube accounted for about 6% of Google's general income in 2014, but did not contribute to its earnings: "After paying for content, and the equipment to deliver speedy videos, YouTube's bottom line remains 'roughly break even,'" according to the Journal's source (Winkler 2015).

The Economics of Attention

While YouTube may not be profitable according to traditional economic standards, it can and has been argued that the site works according to what Richard A. Lanham has called the "economics of attention." In an information economy, according to Lanham's formulation, we are drowning in information: what is in short supply is "the human attention needed to make sense of it all" (Lanham 2006, xi). This scarce attention, furthermore, is orchestrated by pattern and design — or style, in the traditional canons of rhetoric. There is a figure-ground reversal in which content becomes subsidiary to form, and as Steve Jobs recognized clearly in his development of the iPhone and other Apple products, "design, in such a world, becomes as important as the engineering of the object" (Lanham 2006, 16).3 The attention economy thus privileges aesthetics and style over a goods-based economy, "thinking about" information over raw data — in Lanham's memorable phrase, "fluff" over "stuff." In this paradigm, the economists of attention are no longer those sober, numbers-minded experts we associate with an economy of "stuff," but visual artists such as Christo, whose artwork is an allegory of human behavior and motivation, or the designers of computer interfaces (15, 17) — or teenagers playing Hamlet and Ophelia, Bollywood-style ("Hamlet Bollywood Love Scene" 2009).4
YouTube, with its motto of "Broadcast Yourself," stakes its claim to fame on the economics of attention. In a 2006 lecture, YouTube cofounder Jawed Karim characterized the site as a place where a "good idea" can garner millions of users for the most amateur of video uploaders: he cited the early, very unpolished video "Dance" by Matt Harding as a good example (Karim 2006). The top attention-grabbing video of 2012, however, was Psy's highly polished "Gangnam Style," the first video ever to top 1 billion views, which went viral in the U.S. only one week after Korea and reached the 1-billion mark within five months ("Gangnam Style Makes YouTube History" 2012; Allocca 2012b; Shifman 2013, 1). There follow, in order, Walk Off the Earth's cover of "Somebody That I Used to Know" with a crowd-sourced, five-person guitar accompaniment; Carley Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe"; and "Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney," part of the Epic Rap Battles from Maker, one of YouTube's principal partners (see Allocca 2012a; "YouTube in Rewind: What you were watching in 2012"). Most of these top-trending videos were from commercial artists, and some were explicitly created for YouTube. Psy was one of the first artists to become a sensation exclusively through YouTube. A search of the YouTube Trends site on 16 May 2016 foregrounds analysis of the popularity of nominees for British Breakthrough Artist in the BRIT Awards for the best in British music, emphasizing the continuum between YouTube and the broader world of commercial music.5 Between 2012 and 2016, we have come a long way from the amateur sphere epitomized by YouTube's inaugural video, co-founder Jawed Karim's nineteen-second effort, "Me at the Zoo" (Karim 2005).
Shakespeare videos on YouTube, either professional or amateur, have never met these same benchmarks for popularity and viral distribution. They inhabit, instead, the space that Alexandra Juhasz calls the "niche Tube" (2011), pockets of specialized content that can be found on the site by those looking for it or attracted to it in passing. But in this niche market, "big time" or professional Shakespeare tends to dominate. Perhaps the most widely known and frequently viewed Shakespeare videos are the Sassy Gay Friend (SGF) series. From searches conducted for the same uploaded video on 4 February 2013 and 17 May 2016, here are the tallies:

  17 May 2016  13 February 2013   
Romeo and Juliet  7,948,548 views  6,483,376 views  posted on 8 March 2010 
Hamlet  7,190,292 views  6,229,828 views  posted on 17 February 2010 
Othello  3,779,994 views  3,287,135 views  posted on 28 March 2010 

SGF is a commercial creation, in effect an advertisement for the Second City Network, whose channel hosts the videos; originally, they were used to promote Second City's training centers, which teach students how to do improv. Brian Gallivan, the actor behind Sassy Gay Friend, says that he
created the character back in 2004 for a show I was doing as part of the main stage cast at The Second City in Chicago. I wanted to do something with Shakespearean characters and ended up yelling at some of them about their poor life choices. ("A Minute with . . . The Sassy Gay Friend" 2011)
He later began doing advertisements for Kraft Foods, moving from the economy of "fluff" to that of "stuff." In the case of Sassy, as on the application at large, the economics of attention seemed to be working with a more traditional economic model: professional YouTubers court eyeballs with the intention of selling services, tickets, or some other tangible commodity. Videos affiliated with well-known and well-organized institutions, such as with the Royal Shakespeare Company, are the second strongest group in terms of views and page rank. On 4 February 2013, as well, Romeo and Juliet footage (of the "balcony scene," outtakes from onstage, New York, posted 5 July 2011) had 52,106 views. Hamlet, posted on 23 February, had 51,798 views). Here, the economic benefit seems to be related to branding and, no doubt, to the institution's economic muscle in courting the YouTube algorithm to move its videos up the rankings. The numbers of views — indeed, the basic availability of plays in the YouTube archive — also seem to be affected by the curricular status of the Shakespeare play; a beautiful trailer of the RSC's Winter's Tale, for instance, paled next to Romeo and Juliet in terms of numbers of views. Star power — for instance, David Tennant as Hamlet — of course adds additional currency to any video: one fan-uploaded clip of Tennant doing "To be or not to be" received 8,890 views between 2010 and 2016 ("Hamlet - To be or not to be - David Tennant" 2010).6 (Compare this, however, with the 3,682,998 views earned by the video below it in my page rank on 30 April 2016, "The Tenth Doctor Regenerates" [2012], also starring Tennant in his previous role as Dr. Who.)7 Consistently, professional Shakespeare videos earn more views than amateur productions.
Other videos, particularly the more amateur kind that I consider to be the heart of YouTube Shakespeare, belong to the second general category of video on YouTube identified by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green: for the YouTubers we are considering, the Tube operates not as a "top-down" platform for "the distribution of popular culture," but as a "bottom-up" platform for "vernacular creativity" (Burgess and Green 2009, 6). Within this amateur context, there are a few notable examples of YouTube Shakespeare that enjoy both longevity and an impressive number of views. Take, for instance, the 8,976,369 views earned between 2007 and 2016 by the fan-video "Sacrifice" (2007), featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet. A search on 30 April 2016 turned up a note of appreciation to fans from video's creator, who was clearly bemused and gratified by its success.8
More often — particularly in examples from youth culture — the videographers' generally brief commitment to their art, the simple passage of time, and both YouTube's business model and the machinations of its algorithm prevent Shakespeare videos from gaining any significant traction in the attention economy of YouTube. We can get some sense of the audience dynamics for youth culture videos from the case of "Hamlet Star Wars Parody" (2006). The video was first posted on 20 February 2006; when I checked in April 2013, it had received 32,600 views; by 30 April 2016, the view count had grown to 35,968 and moved upward slightly to 35,981 views by 3 May. The video is witty, and obviously indebted to Monty Python. Its production values are simple but effective, and the garbled Star Wars voices are worthy of a laugh. The whole gestalt is endearing in a juvenile sort of way, and there is some evidence that the video has participated both directly and indirectly in an ongoing attention economy. For instance, the long-rolling film credits pilfered from the parent film quickly became a trope lifted for their own use by other teen videographers.
It might not be too much to say that the film contributed to a growing genre of Star Wars parody, which includes the adorable "Jedi Kittens Strike Back" (2011). But while "Hamlet Star Wars Parody" may participate in the attention economy with some success at 35,981 views, its popularity still pales next to that of "Jedi Kittens," which on 3 May 2016 had received 20,819,586 views.

The Economics of (In)Attention on YouTube Shakespeare

Within the context of YouTube's general attention economy, Shakespeare videos enjoy only a modest share. Within the niche market of Shakespeare on YouTube, amateur videos are marginalized further.9 Yet what has happened and continues to happen with amateur Shakespeare videos can tell us something generally about the dynamics of YouTube as a social media site. Since Lanham has argued that the rhetorical "economics of attention" is at odds with the reigning models of capitalist economies that generally drive the Internet, I will suggest that the second term in Lanham's "economics of attention" may also need reconsideration in the case of the amateur, usually youth-oriented Shakespeare productions on YouTube. Stephen O'Neill, whose Shakespeare and YouTube is now the standard text on this subject, acknowledges the relevance of Lanham's theory to the attention economy of YouTube Shakespeares, but also recognizes its limitations for YouTube as an application: The model of attention-savvy user involves considerable demands, envisioning as it does a viewer that sifts through the abundant flow of information with curiosity and openness. Such an ideal viewer might combat what has been regarded as the circularity many YouTube users experience as they move from euphoria at unanticipated discoveries to "entropy," the sense of "ennui" caused by repetition, disruption, and distraction that was first observed by Thomas Elsaesser (Elsaesser 2009; O'Neill 2014, 33). My essay is not so much interested in the affects of euphoria and ennui as in the oscillations between "at" and "through" vision that govern Lanham's economics of attention. It proposes a dialectic between attention and a lack of attention that arguably informs the production and consumption of these amateur YouTube Shakespeares. Key factors affecting what I hope to argue is a complementary economics of (in)attention are: curation and consumption, invention, and community.

Curation and Consumption

When the Web moved to being a repository of content pushed to passive viewers (Web 1.0) to a venue for active creation (Web 2.0), the creator/viewer's role in curating the archives around which Web 2.0 applications are built grew in importance. YouTube began as a crowd-sourced, variable archive that was established largely on the fly by users of all descriptions: entrepreneurs rubbed shoulders with common citizens and students. YouTube-as-archive therefore lacks the intentional selection and scaffolding associated with site-specific artistic and scholarly curation. While this homemade quality to the YouTube archive, fostered by the prevalence of curation by bricolage, proved hospitable to amateur videos, these may have been squeezed out subsequently as professional Shakespeare companies adopt YouTube as an outlet for publicity and the YouTube algorithm moves these well-orchestrated efforts up the page-rank hierarchy.
A key actor in the creator-application-viewer triad is the hidden YouTube algorithm, which the company tweaks constantly to influence access to individual videos. As Kevin Slavin (2011) has argued in his influential TED talk, algorithms that use math "to decide stuff" "talk" primarily to one another, and are, in effect, unreadable by human beings. Eli Pariser's (2011) study of the "filter bubble" analyzes as well the way in which algorithms shape — indeed, limit — the transmission of information between human beings. YouTube's promotion of favored channels to partner status and the advent of subscription channels continued to direct viewers' attention toward established, official sources. Finally, as Bernardo Huberman (2009) writes, the "law of surfing," dependent on a viewer's attention span and purposes in consulting YouTube, predicts that most users will not look beyond one page of hits, and consequently, many videos will never have an audience.10 Thus, the heft of well-managed institutional channels pushes amateur and youth culture efforts further out in the "long tail" of popularity and disrupts the threading of videos.11 The centralization of channels has also reinforced the filter-bubble effect.
The filter-bubble effect seems true for YouTube Shakespeare. My search on "Romeo and Juliet" in 2013, for instance, produced some interference from Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Dire Straits, but for the most part page one was populated by clips from the Luhrmann and Zeffirelli films; a string of pop-music threaded videos led back to Luhrmann by way of the music contributed to that film by Radiohead or to Zeffirelli by way of Henry Mancini's "Love Theme." I was on page seven before I encountered a school project. The same search produced comparable results in 2016, although there appears on page 2 a clearly amateur Romeo and Juliet trailer using clips of Jack and Elsa from Frozen over dialogue from the Paul Giamatti film starring Hailee Steinield ("Romeo and Juliet Trailer" 2014). Amateurism is not dead in 2016, but all in all, the YouTube Shakespeare landscape had become more "enclosed" by the application's search engine — to use an early modern metaphor — than was it was between 2006 and 2009.
In the case of amateur YouTube Shakespeares, the site's architecture and algorithm interfere with as much as they support the attention economy. But the concept of an attention economy contradicts itself. Lanham's concept of the economics of attention takes for granted the importance of human motive in both the creation and reception of digital artifacts. That is not to say that he privileges serious purpose or authorial intention in the traditional sense. His matrix of factors that can trigger the oscillation between "at" and "through" vision that governs attention-getting and giving involves many agents — the creator, certainly, and the audience, but also formal patterns that inhere in the artifacts themselves, and the quirky operations of chance. Yet while Lanham sees human behavior as driven by a wide range of motives, from competition to play to high seriousness, the model is still humanistic, not post-human. The conceptual artist Christo, enacting the drama of setting up his Running Fence through the stunningly beautiful landscape of Marin County, California is an artist of attention structures. It is more difficult to see the YouTube algorithm as an artist or attention economist; it also more difficult to include within Lanham's concept of aleatory chance the myriad accidents and behaviors that influence not only the appearance and disappearance of videos on YouTube, but also their desecration and degeneration. How, for instance, would one characterize the "rich mix of motives" that produce this event, YouTube's notification that a soundtrack has been disabled because of copyright violation? Sony's corporate greed or the videographer's ennui might be partly to blame. But also at work are the automatic protocols of YouTube's audio-fingerprinting software, set against the creator's possible lack of knowledge about what had happened to her video. Lanham's emphasis on human attention as the driving force behind his digital economy does not stretch far enough to account for the full range of actors at work in the assemblage that is YouTube. As Thomas Elsaesser writes, "You Tube is a user-generated-content site where nonetheless a certain structured contingency obtains" (Elsaesser 2009, 181). This "structured contingency" is, on the one hand, strongly informed and shaped by mathematics, via the site's programming architecture and design. On the other hand, the chaos of human creativity, eccentricity, and self-importance "prevails" (181). In an environment saturated with such "constructive instability" (169), as Elsaesser says, we need a rhetoric that embraces not only chance, but what lies beyond chance — collapse and failure.


Sixty-three percent of videos uploaded to YouTube involve snippets of material originally produced for a venue other than YouTube (Ding et al. 2011). This observation holds true as well for YouTube Shakespeares. The majority of amateur Shakespeare videos uploaded to YouTube, in particular, involve either direct appropriation of footage "out there" on the web or remix. The most interesting among these appropriations work according to the dynamics of memeticism. Limor Shifman (2012) defines a memetic video, as opposed to a viral video, as a "popular clip that lures extensive creative user engagement in the form of parody, pastiche, mash-ups, or other derivative work. Such derivatives employ two main mechanisms in relating to the 'original' memetic video: imitation (parroting elements from a video) and re-mix (technologically-afforded re-editing of the video)" (2012, 190, emphasis in original; see also Shifman 2013). This definition fits particularly well the kind of amateur videos that have energized YouTube Shakespeare most strongly. A search on "Lego Macbeth," for instance, brings up a well-ordered genealogy of videos that are similar enough to one another to constitute a Shakespearean genre (see Desmet 2014, 53-55).
Macbeth in Lego! 2011
Macbeth in Lego! 2011
Macbeth Lego: The Movie 2009
Macbeth Lego: The Movie 2009
Lego Macbeth 2009
Lego Macbeth 2009
Lego Macbeth 2016
Lego Macbeth 2016
The LEGO Macbeths keep on coming, perhaps not at the fever pitch of 2008-2009, but there is still, in 2016, a steady stream created to fulfill class assignments.12 At their best, as some of the examples curated by Luke McKernan's curated site Bardbox (McKernan 2016) attest, YouTube Shakespeares demonstrate "extensive creative user engagement" and attract a degree of admiring attention. Still, the cards are heavily stacked against one of these videos gaining traction in YouTube's overall attention economy. As Bernardo Huberman (2009) argues, the law of surfing not only concentrates by mechanical means the economics of viewer attention, but also has a chilling effect on uploading activity itself:
YouTube's data set revealed that the productivity of those uploading videos strongly depends on attention, as measured by the number of downloads. Conversely, a lack of attention leads to a decrease in the number of videos uploaded and a consequent drop in productivity. (Huberman 2009, 63)
Lack of eyeballs creates a lack of interest in continuing the cultural conversation.
While the combined effect of many factors — from the YouTube algorithm to its business model and consumers' tendency toward casual "surfing" — work against the establishment of a canon in the Shakespeare niche, the videographers themselves are in part responsible for the disarray of its attention economy. Amateur YouTube Shakespeareans are notoriously sloppy about including the tags and metadata that allow for systematic threading of videos and make possible the phenomenon that Patricia Lange has called "videos of affinity" (Lange 2009; see also Desmet 2014, 56-58), which are motivated by an intense desire to "talk back" to a previous videographer.13 Amateur YouTube Shakespeareans, indifferent to fame and distracted easily from Shakespeare as a topic, confirm Alexandra Juhasz's conclusion that while "online documentary presentation on YouTube disturbs many binaries — public/private, self/other, male/female" to "initiat[e] connections inconceivable without the technology," it is also true that "YouTube closes down the construction of coherent communities and returns production, consumption, and meaning-making to the isolated individual, reestablishing the reign of the self" ("Isolation/Connection," Juhasz 2011). As discussed below, these disjunctions and gaps work against any sense of community, despite the fact that young videographers enthusiastically court subscribers, "likes," and comments.14
Last and not least, YouTube Shakespeareans of the amateur kind, at least according to my experience, tend to be casual about their craft. In a few cases, video producers report that a perfunctory assignment took on a life of its own ("this started out as an English project, but we really got into it and spent five days filming"). But more often, they brag about their short production schedule ("we did this in two hours!"). Finally, despite YouTube's effort to educate its participants about ownership and fair use, Shakespeare YouTubers can be equally off-hand about the details of copyright ("I own none of this"; "No copyright infringement intended!"). They belong to the world of "remix" (Lessig 2008), but in a particularly insouciant way, and so their videos are subject to a fairly high rate of attrition for copyright infringement. In many ways, invention in YouTube Shakespeare — whimsical, ephemeral, and occasionally perfunctory — involves inattentiveness as much as an economics of getting and giving attention.


Another factor complicating attempts to assess YouTube Shakespeare as a cultural scene is the changing nature of the concept of "community," for both the application and the Shakespeare sector. At the time when the first wave of Shakespeare videos flourished, YouTube was, in effect, a world unto itself; videos, appended comments, the threaded videos recommended by the search engine all coalesced to create something that was at once a unified digital artifact and an elastic focus of community response and reaction in different modes. This structure reinforced and was supported by the general sense that "the" YouTube community operated like the participatory cultures analyzed by Henry Jenkins (1992). For instance, Star Wars fan-fic groups remixed and reworked the series and engaged vigorously with one another in real time by digital means. Not all of YouTube has lost this centripetal focus. For instance, the "It Gets Better" video series initiated in 2010 that was inspired by a string of well-publicized gay teen suicides has formal coherence (the videos followed a common set of rhetorical protocols). They also respond directly to one another via the comments function, often challenging the makers Dan and Terry's blindness to issues of class and a tendency toward hetero-normativity emerging from the project; these comments to individual videos are equally centripetal, with relatively little linking outward.15 The comment exchanges also seemed to center around a group that if not without its differences, at least was defined at that moment by a common set of issues.
By contrast, YouTube Shakespeareans often address themselves to a general, rather ill-defined audience. There are some heart-felt statements of "thank you" aimed at the sponsoring literature teacher. But most of the comments appended to the current crop of "Lego Macbeth" videos, for instance, sound like this: "This is a project a few other people and I had to put together for our senior english class"; or, more assertively, "First movie i've ever made. ever. Please comment, rate and subscribe." The comments are impersonal but cheery and display a healthy insouciance and self-confidence. Perhaps most important, they express little angst about communication and community.
Complicating the scene further is the tendency, especially among amateurs, to use YouTube simply as a platform for sharing work, whether in response to an assignment or as a convenient place to stash videos for cataloguing and sometimes display in other venues (see Jenkins et al. 2016, 8). The communities these uploaders want to reach are constituted, by contrast, largely outside the digital realm of YouTube, in meatspace rather than cyberspace. They are friends, teachers, parents, and, as an afterthought, an idealized vision of random surfers who will undoubtedly love their work. This probably explains why YouTube uploaders are so resolutely uninterested in numbers of views, and with the fame and fortune that often follows from capturing social attention.

YouTube as Memory Theater: The Example of Sleep No More

What, finally, is the effect of a dialectic between attention and (in)attention in the (amateur) YouTube Shakespeare community? A good example of how YouTube's double nature as personal archive and communal social media site affects the attention economy is provided by the activity there around Punchdrunk's immersive theater happening Sleep No More, in part an appropriation of Macbeth, which has been playing in New York from 2011 to 2016. Like YouTube itself, Sleep No More mixes commercialism with amateur art; the ethos is of a haunted house on literary steroids, but tickets have gone for over $100 apiece, with performances sold out months in advance. This site-specific, face-to-face experience enhanced with visual effects, music, and edgy "one-on-one" encounters with the actors, has the quality of "liveness," to use Philip Auslander's (2008) term for performance in a "mediatized" world. The experience of each audience member, itself carefully scripted but endlessly varied, invites repeat visits and a great deal of virtual chatter.
Sleep No More is all about the attention economy. People are free to wander about the dark interior of the McKittrick Hotel, while the various displays — ranging from a meticulous collection of keys in the hotel office to the surprising sight of a stag anchored in salt in another room — compete for visitors' attention. At the same time, the experience is by necessity incomplete. Visitors inevitably will miss some rooms altogether and may choose to ignore others. Another drama of attention-structures plays out between spectators and actors. Visitors are hidden behind anonymous (and uncomfortable) white masks, which is disorienting; the elevator operators who usher clients into the space often attempt to break up groups, and any effort to reunite with friends by cellphone earns a stern reprimand from the ushers who keep order in the place (see "Sleep No More immersive theatrical experience in New York" 2014). The spectators are to look but not talk, to focus their attention on the exhibits and on the actors who come and go and behave in startling, often inexplicable ways. At the same time, audience members make a game of trying to attract the players' attention and, with luck, earn one of the infamous one-on-one experiences in private with a performer.16 The web is full of advice about what actors to follow and how to catch their eye.
Sleep No More chroniclers on YouTube, in their effort to preserve and communicate to others their experience of this immersive drama, also participate in the attention economy. In 2011, one could find on YouTube reviews surreptitiously filmed by customers (e.g., "Sleep No More: 530 W 27th Street, New York, NY" 2011); one could also find recordings of celebrity sightings ("Pink at Sleep No More" 2011). But most important and interesting, there followed on YouTube efforts to recreate for a broader audience the necessarily eccentric experience of attending a live performance of Sleep No More. These tribute videos are both physically imbricated with that theatrical experience and distant from it, immediate as personal experiences and hypermediated through the sampled visual and musical tidbits used to create them.17
Reproducing the experience of "being there" at the McKittrick hotel, however, offers many challenges. Not only is the experience ephemeral and by definition, variable, but for a long time Sleep No More's bureaucracy controlled tightly the circulation of images and other materials; in 2012, for instance, Borrowers and Lenders editor Matt Kozusko could not get permission to reprint certain images from the $20 performance program. But following a lavish slide show in The New York Times, memorial or tribute videos based on that slide show soon began to appear.18 At the same time, other amateur as well as professional news venues began publishing more images from Sleep No More (see, for instance, Carr 2011).
Once there were a sufficient number of high-quality images available for appropriation, Sleep No More mashups made from these images and sound clips ripped from DVDs became possible, and they proliferated. Emursive, the company that produced and continues to produce (for a brief time longer) Sleep No More, adapted to this inevitable proliferation of visual and aural information about the production by cooperating with it. A 2012 video by Miguel Angel Herrerias (aka Miguel Sagaz) provided pictures and film clips, as well as an interview with the actor who at that time played Macbeth (Herrerias 2012). Images of Sleep No More are now all over Pinterest, and a Google image search conveniently gathers them together for the casual user.
Pinterest Board for Sleep No More
Pinterest Board for Sleep No More
The official Sleep No More website itself now offers a video trailer for viewing and animated GIFs and images for downloading or sharing on social media. At the same time, the Gift Shop offers, in addition to the $20 full-color program, gift packages of dinner and show that range from $220 to $500 and some rather pricey SNM "Special Edition" playing cards (Sleep No More 2016).
We have come full circle, perhaps, with the economics of attention married once again to the capitalist economy that fuels the SNM engine. But the collected YouTube tributes, which still populate the YouTube archive, have a different social function. The virtual traces of Sleep No More on YouTube work something like the memory theater of the early modern period, in which rhetors "placed" different images that encapsulated ideas and feelings in an imagined architectural space in order to retrieve them later for argument and performance. To offer an updated analogy, Sleep No More on YouTube resembles nothing so much as the Disney-type "ride" established by digital entrepreneurs in Cory Doctorow's novel Makers (2009). This "ride" is constructed by visitors who leave behind commemorative artifacts that are meaningful to them and that then become part of the next set of riders' own experience. The topography of the ride is ever-shifting, reconstituted moment by moment not only by visitors to the home base in Florida but also by the collective visitations of devotees at mirror rides around the globe that are linked digitally to one another. It is a crowd-sourced, highly fluid memory palace that is partly digital, partly embodied, and highly dispersed as a network. These same qualities characterize the social function of Sleep No More materials on YouTube.
The function of Sleep No More offerings on YouTube as a memory theater is consistent with the function of more highbrow contributions from such institutions as the Royal Shakespeare Company. Kate Rumbold (2010), for instance, has discussed how the increased participation of cultural institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company in virtual venues supports public and personal memory. The contributions of Sleep No More's intense fans, however, also trace their genealogy to the amateur culture that sustained YouTube Shakespeare in its first instantiation and continues to do so. Because they fly beneath the radar as mild paparazzi (as in the case of the Pink sighting) or as stealth photographers (in the case of the Andrew photos), the Sleep No More aficionados posting on YouTube partake in the same participatory spirit as the LEGO Macbeth creators. And although the crowd-sourced research into the multimedia sources behind the Sleep No More experience is far beyond that ever conducted by any LEGO Shakespeareans and the production values were much higher (see, for instance, Ricci 2012), the creative energy of this small, decentralized YouTube community — ranging beyond YouTube to the blogosphere and down into Manhattan's physical terrain — resembles that of the first generation of YouTube amateur artists.
By 2016, Sleep No More's memory theater is a palace in ruins, more like the crumbling amphitheater in which Leonardo DiCaprio takes Tybalt's life in the Baz Luhrmann film of Romeo + Juliet than the dignified structures of Renaissance memory practice. There are a few recent videos posted, but most are from, at best, three to four years ago. Some that I consulted in 2013 are still there. "AndrewAndrew," the intrepid pair who did their "investigative reporting" with nothing more than an iPhone 4, remain available for viewing ("Sleep No More: 530 W 27th Street, New York, NY" 2011); the most recent comments on their video, however, are all from three or four years ago. Available also is the appearance of Pink at a performance mentioned above, which on 3 May 2016 had 800 views but absolutely no comments.
By contrast, the trailer that is posted on Sleep No More's website, which was also posted on YouTube in 2014, received an appreciative comment as recently as 2 May 2016, while five months previously another fan had begged the show to go on the road to Singapore. Still, other, older posts also have received recent occasional comments and testimonials. The ups and downs of the SNM cult, the lax self-policing of the videographers themselves, who may abandon their creations but not destroy them, and the ongoing trickle of curious surfers and latter-day Sleep No More fans, combine to create a legacy archive that testifies at once to the operations of attention structures and a total disregard for attention on this loosely constructed YouTube Shakespeare collection.


I chose the phrase economics of (in)attention for this essay's title as a corrective to the "economics of attention" in order to acknowledge the transience, insouciance, and vagrant attention span underlying the hacker's ethics of expedience, all of which are at work in amateur YouTube Shakespeare. An economics of inattention is congenial, as well, to the conflicting forces that shape (and disrupt) YouTube as archive and social media site. In much social science and media scholarship about YouTube as a digital medium, "economics" remains largely a quantitative science, with eyeballs simply substituting for dollars; it is "serious" business.
Lanham's rhetorically inflected idea of economics, by contrast, is more aware of the machinations of chance, the stray thought, the serendipitous search, and a broader spirit of play and game in the vagaries of attention. His economics of attention attends to a range of motives far afield from the serious purposiveness that governs most discussions of an economics of attention. So perhaps I am arguing that the economics of (in)attention is a largely unacknowledged part of, rather than the opposite of, an economics of attention, and that it necessarily plays a larger role in the posthuman field of YouTube studies than Shakespeareans who study processes and artifacts of adaptation are accustomed to. As Stephen O'Neill writes of YouTube's posthuman quality: "When we look closely at YouTube, it presents a set of oppositions, which blend into continuums. These include copiousness and limitation; chaos and control; humans and machines (or users and the algorithm); the serendipity of video surfing and algorithmic sorting; professional and amateur; [and] consumer and producer" (O'Neill 2014, 2). To broadcast oneself as an amateur appropriator of Shakespeare on YouTube is to participate in a messy field of production and reception with many agents, not all of whom are paying attention at any given moment, and to encounter others who have arrived belatedly, or perhaps by accident.


1.   In the "Statistics" section of its official website, YouTube offers updated information about partner rules from advertising and earnings from copyright fees to rights-holders. See
2.   Leading up to the first phase of this study, one partner, "Maker," put out around 300 videos a month at a cost of around $1000 apiece and got about 500 million views within the same time frame. Advertisers pay up "up to $10 per thousand views for video ads that precede the featured content" ("Economics behind" 2012). See also "YouTube's Premium-Content Strategy Starts to Take Shape" 2011; "Top 5 YouTube Partner Channels Ranked on Unique U.S. Viewers — May 2012 (Total)" 2012; and "Transitioning to AdWords for video" 2012.
3.   This focus on design as a principal concern of business, coupled with Jobs's well-known flair for focusing media attention on himself and his products, are vividly exemplified in Walter Isaacson's biography of him (2011).
4.   Another difference between YouTube and the artists discussed by Lanham is the participation of minors in its attention economy, which adds new complications. YouTube asks the posters of video to confirm that they are at least thirteen years of age. See "Ability to Accept Terms of Service": "You affirm that you are either more than 18 years of age, or an emancipated minor, or possess legal parental or guardian consent, and are fully able and competent to enter into the terms, conditions, obligations, affirmations, representations, and warranties set forth in these Terms of Service, and to abide by and comply with these Terms of Service. In any case, you affirm that you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under 13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you" (;template=terms). The YouTube researcher is also faced with the ethical issues attendant on conducting research with minors. Those issues are analyzed at length in this issue by Valerie Fazel, "Researching YouTube Shakespeare: Literary Scholars and the Ethical Challenges of Social Media."
5.   See YouTube Trends:
6.   As a footnote, the Sassy Gay Friend videos did gain a significant number of views between 2013 and 2016, with Othello generating the least and Romeo and Juliet the greatest interest, which might suggest the continuing influence of secondary school curricula on YouTube Shakespeare.
7.   On 8 May 2016, the copy of the Hamlet soliloquy that had earned the largest number of views had earned only 100,021.
8.   It is impossible to determine with certainty the reason for this video's continued appeal. I think that is a particularly well-crafted example of its genre, but as Stephen O'Neill points out in a private communication, DiCaprio's later performances in The Great Gatsby (2013) and The Revenant (2015), which sustain his celebrity status, may also draw views to his earlier performance as Romeo. Again, it is also wise to remember the influence of school curricula may have on YouTube Shakespeare's production and consumption.
9.   When I ran a searching on trending videos on 23 May 2016, the first "Shakespeare" video I found that might be considered an amateur production, "Episode 1: The Real Housewives of Shakespeare" (2016), was published 12 March 2016 and had, since that time, gained 10,157 views.
10.   See Huberman 2009, p. 64 ff: "Another problem stems from the finite number of items that a user can attend to in a given time interval." For social users, the "the law of surfing" states that the probability of a user accessing a number of Web pages in a single session markedly decays with the number of pages, thereby constraining the amount of information that ever gets explored in a single surfing session. A typical user seldom visits pages beyond the first one displaying search results; consequently, a page ranked near the bottom by a search engine is unlikely to be viewed by many users."
11.   The concept of the "long tail" comes from Wired's Chris Anderson (2008). For a dissenting thesis that "more than 47% of uploaders attract more than 1,000 uploader views, implying that YouTube uploaders enjoy good visibility, for those who upload a very small number of videos," see Ding et al. 2011, 363.
12.   The LEGO film, and Shakespeare's appearance in that movie as one of the master builders, probably has sustained, and perhaps strengthened, the association of LEGO with Shakespeare. That LEGO deliberately capitalizes on the connection is suggested by the fact that the company published on its YouTube channel a video of LEGO Shakespeare scenes to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death ("LEGO® LEGO Wherefore art thou LEGO . . ." 2016).
13.   You'll never find a Shakespearean, for instance, adding "porn" to a list of keywords just in order to entice more traffic, although a few uploaders who are more interested in pop culture and less in Shakespeare per se have done so. I have written about this topic in relation to postings of the Beatles' "Pyramus and Thisbe" in Desmet, "YouTube Shakespeare" (2014).
14.   The question of whether YouTube creates community or estrangement remains unresolved. For the argument that YouTube, as a social media application, works against community, see Juhasz 2011; for the opposite position, see Rotman and Preese 2010.
15.   See, for instance, "Dan Savage: What the It Gets Better Project Has Accomplished" (2013).
16.   For more information on the experience of Sleep No More, consult the essays edited by Matt Kozusko, "Site, Space, and Intimacy: Sleep No More's Immersive Intertext," in Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation 7.2 (Winter 2012-Spring 2013). Of particular interest to this discussion is Colette Gordon, "Touching the Spectator: Intimacy, Immersion, and the Theater of the Velvet Rope" (2012-2013).
17.   The relation between live and mediated performance is by no means monolithic. See, for instance, Pascale Aebischer's argument that virtual audiences engaged with the Google+ site associated with a 2013 Royal Shakespeare Company performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream were more engaged (and creative) participants than those experiencing the live performance, which in comparison to the individual user's peregrinations through the virtual forest seemed scripted and predictable (Aebsicher 2016).
18.   For a good example of a tribute video that I remember as having purloined its images from the now-unavailable New York Times slideshow, see "Sleep No More - Witches 'Rave / Orgy' music" 2011). Some of the images that had been released via news articles, including the New York Times, are now gathered together on the SNM site. The Times also offers images from Sleep No More for sale (see, for instance, "Theatre Sleep 2" 2011).


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