07/28/2014 01:43 EDT | Updated 09/27/2014 05:59 EDT

There's Something Catholic About YouTube Confessions

Recently, I spent a glum and rainy afternoon scrolling through a couple dozen YouTube testimonials from bullied and traumatized youths. There's been a swift proliferation of these videos, featuring teenagers (mostly girls) holding up flashcards with hand-written messages --stories of attempted suicide, of anorexia, confessions of abuse. They're expressions of angst. They're expressions that, in previous generations, would be reserved for the private pages of diaries and shoved beneath the mattress.

I read the fevered comment feeds and wondered what we might call this strange, excitable new genre. Like a diary, but public. In the end, I found that the narrative tradition these videos most closely resemble is not a literary one at all -- it's the Catholic tradition of confession. In both scenarios the confessor unpacks their darkest secrets while sitting in a small chamber -- a wooden booth in one case, a child's bedroom in the other. These confessions are issued through a screen (a lattice in one case, a digital monitor in the other) and are received by an unseen audience that offers commentary (clerical in one case, crowd-sourced in the other).

Some of these confessionals receive millions of hits. But the popularity raises the question: to whom are you confessing? I would argue these YouTube videos aren't meant to be viewed by any one person or group. Rather, the confessor offers up her soul's pain to an unbodied spirit. The confessor is communing with the Internet as a kind of holy body. The commenters and viewers, shrouded in their cloak of anonymity, are everyone and no one at once.

And how humane is their echoing reply? Sometimes YouTube Confessionals are gilded with "likes" and supportive commentary. But other times our faceless avatars spew profanity and ruthless disdain. The malice that analogue life tamps down, out of sight, comes bubbling to the screen's surface. The trolls are delighted by their capacity for consequence-free cruelty. And the teenage confessor is desperate to confess to someone, something -- desperate, in fact, to see her value quantified by the number of views her video receives. She subjects herself to the commenters' cruelty because online life is the very air she breathes. As a digital native, she is unpracticed at non-digital, non-collective communication and can't well imagine its value. If we don't bring critical media studies to our high schools and elementary schools, she may have no clue that there are other modes of being, other modes of communication.

We seem to be asking our digital media to process and manage intense and nebulous human qualities when we use them to process diary-style confessions. But our most personal, most human moments are always reduced and two-dimensional when filtered through the mesh of any technology less complex than the human brain.

And besides, when we make our confessions online we lose the powerful workshop of the lone mind, which longs to puzzle through the mysteries of its own existence without reference to the demands of a ruthless public.


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