Called to serve—on YouTube.
Last February I wrote a post , “Call and Response,” recounting the event of my brother’s mission call. February 2006 was a big month for Benjamin. As it happened, February 2006 was also big for a young website called YouTube, which received a call of its own that month—a call from NBC, requesting that the viral SNL clip “Lazy Sunday” be pulled from the site. YouTube lost the clip, but won a pile of publicity, and video-sharing hit the big time in a big way.
A year later, millions of video clips have been uploaded to YouTube, among them several dozen of prospective LDS missionaries opening their mission calls. These videos have names like “Dustin Opening his Mission Call” and “Ty Opening his Mission Call” and “Danaan Opens his Mission Call,” and they’re a lot more fun to watch than to read.
If you go to YouTube, and type “mission call” into the search field, you’ll pull up most of them in the first few pages. Watch a few, and it won’t take long to work out the basic anatomy of the species. Each episode naturally falls into three acts: a high-anticipation set-up, with action rising through the opening of the envelope and a line-by-line reading ; the crise, at which the destination is announced (country first, always country first); and a chaotic denouement. Where an essay or film would artfully—and falsely—tie off the end of the scene, the video clip leaves its raveled edges in plain view as conversation fractures and attention wanes.
This is drawing-room drama: mission calls are opened in a home or in a college dorm/dive—and ever so rarely at work. The performances are tightly scripted, of course, the lines taken straight from the big white envelope. But the line readings sample a panoply of emotion: deadpan, lachrymose, pyretic (in Finnish, no less!). Production values, on the other hand, are low, and range from understated to sentimental to drolly deranged.
After a few more you begin to realize that watching a mission call videos on YouTube is like looking at Madonnas in the National Gallery: the delight is in detail, and in difference, in the color of a drape or the slant of a hand. How will the principal open the envelope? (Hint: this is dangerous.) How many cell phones, digital cameras, and webcams will be caught on tape? And just how many GA portraits can a load-bearing wall safely hold, anyway? (Is it just me, or do you see a wall hanging of the RS General Presidents in this one?)
In my little essay on Benjamin’s mission call, I suggested that the potency of the moment came from his stepping into an existing role, a performed identity that houses our hopes and vulnerabilities. If this is so, then maybe YouTube isn’t half bad as a stage: its inherent performativity, its ethic of participatory sharing, even the frayed real-life edges of its clips allow us to experience the moment together, to fasten our otherwise fissile stories to a greater meaning.