The Phantom Audience, or How to “Really Do It”

Asher White

At parties, or during breaks in class, or in line for coffee, we offer little references, often folded into jokes. The more specific the reference—the more precisely something is named, the more acutely relatable a shared memory is—the more the joke pays off. Maybe
you make a remark about a teacher you’ve both had, or about some larger failure of the institution you’re involved with. It’s a way of intercepting a mutual projection of strangerness. It says: I’m like you!

In particular, “classic” relics of the American Generation Z childhood
1—Nickelodeon, Tamagotchis, gym class scooters, warm GoGurt tubes—radiate an especially relatable, sunny, romantic nostalgia. (This effect extends to even hazier, less recognizable artifacts: the curiously sparse graphics of Neopets, the fever dream artifice of The Amanda Show, kids with red “Gatorade lips,” strip mall laser tag). Such staples of an early-’00s cultural landscape make for easy memes and fun small talk because they signal a deep familiarity, a shared language. They say: we are in the same demographic group. Revisiting the touchstones we once avidly consumed as elementary schoolers brings us delight (Glee, even) and something close to pride. Which Lunchables did your mom buy? Who had more than two Webkinz?2 References like this remind us of a time when our enjoyment of the world was wholeheartedly sincere and based only on the actual process of experiencing it. Getting dehydrated at summer camp. Hearing the tinny explosions of radio commercials. Eating too many Gushers. Eerie music in a movie wasn’t codified into “eerie music”; it registered as legitimate anxiety.3

Whereas these pre-comprehension touchstones (circa say, 1998–2006) inspire fond retrospection, it’s the following era of Gen Z culture (2007–2014) that gets murkier, muddier, and much more difficult to wade through. Ages 10–14 for anygeneration is when the undiscerning joy of youth twists into skepticism and angst; cynicism is a given for middle schoolers. But for this turn-of-the-century generation, the cynicism was amplified and distorted into unforeseen and disastrous proportions by the Internet. We found ourselves in a dangerous reverse-Goldilocks zone:
4 our parents had mostly overcome Y2K fears about the technological apocalypse but had yet to fully understand the threat of unrestricted Internet access, the implications of social media. YouTube was popularized in 2006 (the start of our elementary school), Instagram didn’t debut until 2010 (the start of our middle school).

It was during these years that the activity of Watching YouTube Videos was founded, when kids began dedicating hours to YouTube vloggers and subsequently developing affected personas and regrettable comedic tics, passionately aligning with subcultures and adopting niche vocabulary. Some of this may have done irrevocable damage to our personalities; you can always spot a reformed SuperWhoLockian.

The effect vlogging had on me and my peers is hard to overstate. We became accustomed to a specific method of performing life, sensationalizing and curating for an invisible audience. Crucially, we learned to spectate, to watch alone and anonymously. We would intake reliable content that we didn’t necessarily understand but could expect to be stimulated by. We became less in touch with developmental milestones and more in tune with the possibilities of public persona.

I’ve noticed more reluctance to revisit this landscape than for the golden days of Arthur. This is understandable. There’s nothing particularly cute about Smosh. But in this shadier and less-traveled neighborhood of childhood lives a phenomenon that profoundly influenced the self-image of my peers. When friends of mine discuss this era in their lives, there is one constant: everyone unconsciously believed themselves to be the youngest viewer. Overwhelmingly, kids my age assumed they were at least a few years younger than the other viewers—a different class than the subscribers, raters, and likers. We all, I have found in conversation after conversation, privately and silently shared this sensation.

For me, the types of videos created by Shane Dawson or nigahiga—crude, outrageous, self-effacing in the self-aggrandizing way that self-produced content often is—always felt forbidden, a little more “adult” than what I was supposed to be enjoying. This was part of their appeal: here was a TV-alternative that was seemingly lawless, an infinitely rich and richly infinite network of references, parodies, and in-jokes that I had carte-blanche access to. Its arbiters, the producers of all these ideas, were in their 20s (or just ambiguously “older”
6), so presumably it was intended for otherpeople of that age.7 The Forbidden Fruit Factor was imperative: there was an unspoken understanding that the anarchic splendors of the online universe were intended for grown-ups, and that by some parental or societal oversight, we were getting access.

Now that our generation has reached the age group we once supposed the content was aimed at, we find, to our horror, that the videos are unwatchably embarrassing. They are all very clearly intended for middle schoolers. In retrospect, paradoxically, these videos could only ever appeal to younger kids entranced by the promise of maturity. Vintage Shane Dawson videos offer topical, tabloid-derived content and bizarre, self-referential digs; Smosh represents the manic id of America’s 5th grade boys. It’s the type of edgy, juvenile humor that represents what younger kids think “adult humor” is like: racially contentious, cartoonishly and impersonally sexual, absurd and abrasive.

In this bait-and-switch lies the Phantom Audience, the shadow of “older kids” we assumed the content was targeted at, the invisible audience that populated the comment sections and subscriber counts, the ones who got the top comments or made the GIFs. We projected this non-existent collective into the view counts: our friend’s older sibling or our older sibling’s friend, people who got every reference, knew the sex lingo, played the video game, saw the movie, were represented in the high school sketches.

The YouTube stars were, on average, a decade older than their fans. Ray William Johnson had producers, writers, a director—a deflating discovery that reveals its intentional marketing strategy: to tantalize middle schoolers with scandal.
8There once were clear delineations of content, which didn’t so much restrict access to explicit content so much as verify its intended audience.9 Regardless of whether these guidelines were followed, they indicated who the other viewers should’ve been. If the Internet corroded intra-cultural or material initiations of adulthood, late 2000s YouTube creators capitalized on Gen Z’s broken maturity complex. YouTube introduced its own rite of passage, beckoning all ages, requiring only chill parents who could grant restrictionless access.

Unlike the imagined co-audience that the content-consumer perceives, the invisible audience that the content-producer perceives has been researched and written about. A study in 2016 examined the way social network users conceptualize their audience as an abstract audience (a blank screen for the creator to project upon) or a target audience (legitimate, identifiable groups with “communal” or “professional” ties). Over half of all users admitted to conceptualizing the former, an entirely abstract group of people, faceless and insatiably eager for whatever ideas are haphazardly flung from a user’s laptop.

These absent contingents are crucial to the Internet’s operation. Farcical projected masses oil the pipes of the Internet so content can travel through smoothly; forums rely on the distortion (if not complete concealment) of personhood in online interactions, and cumulative video statistics (1.2k views, 8k subscribers) are not numbers we can realistically understand. We trust that there are anonymous people out there with a more authentic appreciation for the meme we’ve stumbled upon, people who have spent more time with the music, or have histories and insights into the stories that we can only understand collaterally. It’s never for us.

While first writing this piece, I naively assumed I was the first to come up with the term “phantom audience.” But of course, the term is way too handsome to have been uncoined.
11 Indeed, it was used by Lynn Deboeck of the University of Utah in her 2016 article about theater reviews, a not-so-distant ancestor of YouTube video comment sections. Deboeck describes the way a work’s cultural significance is shaped by the abstraction of an audience, in this case as theater is reviewed for publications. She writes:

The performance review is “haunted” by the memories assumed to be held collective, yet flowing from the reviewer’s pen. … The performance review, then, as a post-existing text, must create for itself a knowing audience. … In order to perform a review, the reviewer must make claims not only about what they saw in a performance, but what the audience as a whole witnessed. Unable to embody the diversity of an entire audience, the reviewer must claim authority by assuming they have it already. As a piece of archival information, a performance review could claim a certain amount of authority itself; and yet, the reader encounters only a single witness’s account in a performance review. … Given the power a review has as a particular archival memory mechanism, it ends up creating a phantom audience—an invisible presence of perception that both can and does not exist.

Although she writes about a nonvirtual phenomenon dating back centuries before the web, Deboeck’s preoccupation with the way an original “witnessing” becomes corrupted and overwritten by reviews foreshadows the sensationalist and instantly archivable information processing of sites like Reddit. The viewers both do and do not exist. One can only imagine this Schrodinger’s Audience process being dramatically accelerated when the audience members never even enter the same room.

But Deboeck’s writing about cultural memory production evokes something beyond the Internet, something much larger about the mechanics of spectatorship and cultural influence.

One way to think about the relationship between audience, reviewer and phantom audience is as steps in a distillation process. … The performance itself communicates directly to an audience, who distills what they witness into a multiplicity of responses. The interpretation of those responses, influenced by the reviewer’s individual response and biases, breaks down the performance into meanings and associations that stem from currently held stereotypes in our contemporary culture.

Theater critics have the ability to define a play’s cultural status by making claims about its assumed audience, whether around their political alignment, age, income, and so on. Critics have the platform to define the cultural position of a piece of media. But this is something all of us do silently when we consume. We project who we are—and who we’re not—onto other viewers.

Think of the brief, fleeting moment in a movie theater where you suddenly become lucid, aware of the bodies in the room performing the activity everyone has silently agreed to participate in. Watching people watch something is fascinating. Theaterfosters a shared experience in the most literal sense. As Deboeck confirms, the Internet did not generate this phenomenon. But it did exploit or exacerbate it—in forums like Reddit, we are reading reactions of reactions of reactions, and tumblr was built around the accumulation of reposts, reactions, and remixes. Now, a work’s cultural influence is less established by a paid critic and more so cumulatively, by thousands of individual viewers.

The dystopian popularity of the “react video” genre—where kids or the elderly are shown videos that presumably were not created for them—thoroughly acknowledge the satisfaction of watching someone watch something. They directly fulfill this desire to watch alongside someone and gauge their reaction as a metric for the differences and similarities between your perspective and theirs. These videos are the exact opposite of phantom audience videos: instead of tempting you with ideas that are slightly out of reach, they assure you that the ideas they present are far more out of reach for other people. The videos of old people learning about recent viral trends affirm that you, the viewer, hold the cultural vanguard.

By othering groups that deviate from the mainstream (in relatively inoffensive ways, like age), “react videos” are antidotes to the anxiety consistently expressed by my generation: that the post-time, post-space infinitum of the Internet has left us with diminishing touchstones for nostalgia. Nostalgia develops as things go out of style; if nothing goes out of style, it becomes increasingly difficult to find things that resonate as “before.” This is why we—the last generation older than YouTube—cling obsessively to the few pre-Internet relics we can still turn over. It’s why mentioning “Capri-Suns at the soccer game” can be heartwrenching.

I spent last summer back in my hometown of Chicago after my first year of college. During previous shorter visits home, I had performed for myself small rituals of nostalgia, resurfacing old memories from every era of my life, good and bad, vivid and fuzzy. That July night, however, I found myself in an unfamiliar role, occupying a spacious and incandescent-lit gallery nested in a historic Chicago mansion, sipping small cups of wine that had been laid out in an array in front of two large glass windows. It was the type of fancy, indulgent art experience RISD had promised, the kind that would occasionally appear in my most embarrassing high school fantasies. These spaces were filled with people who were more important than me, more qualified than me, and certainly much older than me. A monolith of real artists and devoted critics. Gatherings like these were premium arenas for “Map talk.”

“Map talk” is something I’d observed my whole life. It’s when someone—usually needlessly—describes routes around a city, using popular streets and landmarks to illustrate how comfortable they are with the metropolitan geography.
14 This jargon is like an inverted, romantic Peanuts Adultspeak; to children it is incomprehensible but undoubtedly very important, to teens it is sexy, admirable, and embodies self-sufficiency . . . to those on the cusp of adulthood it is the quickest way to delude yourself into delirious fantasies of Real Life, whenever that may start.

When I was young, this performed and sustained elegance was unthinkable to me. But at the gallery, I suddenly found myself faking it with ease, moving around the room smoothly, watching everyone else adjust into comfort with this environment. I was now, with other Chicagoan Adults, engaging in “Map talk.” Suddenly, I was the adult doing the adulthood I once lusted after, for an audience of people doing the same thing. I was speaking the Language of Adults—a language created not by adults, but by people who sensed that otherswere adults. It occurred to me that most of the other attendees of this event were around my age, from parallel institutions. Ostensibly, all of us had grown up with a similar set of references, a similar relationship to media, a similar involvement with the Internet. Here, in person, we were not hiding behind view counts or avatars. Still, there was a palpable poise and expectancy, as if we were waiting for another guest to arrive. All of us were pursuing the same affirmation: that we were the target demographic for each other. That we got each other’s references—references to the layout of the city, to music, to childhood TV. That we were the right people there, even if we felt like we weren’t. That we were the missing audience who understood it best. Everyone was faking it, and no one was.

1. Various sources seem to agree this range starts in the late 1990s but it is unclear when the cutoff year is. I feel like those whose first remembered election is 2008 will have a different lease on life than those whose first remembered election is 2016.

2. I didn’t, but I did receive a month-long Club Penguin membership for Hannukah one year. 30 days in heaven for sure, and it may have ignited a lifelong and turbulent relationship with aimless accessorizing—does an 11-year-old need a vest for their Puffle?

3. This is why shows like Boobah hit so hard. Boobah got it. It understood that children under the age of 4 live by immediate sensory experience, and will be fascinated by media that appeals directly to that perception of the world. The puzzlingly structure-free episodes of Boobah follow indecipherable logic that glides from image to image, always tactile, visceral, vibrant, exciting. To grown-ups, Boobah is a remarkably psychedelic affair that often feels like someone designed a storyline around Candy Crush Saga. But to little kids, it resonates so deeply because it meets them exactly where they’re at and doesn’t attempt any patronizing claims to education or morality.

4. This zone could be described as post-“pre-Internet” and pre-“post-Internet,” or “Internet” for short.

5. The harbinger to this everlasting affect phenomenon was A Series of Unfortunate Events, a wry, smug, and pretty infuriating string of postmodern children’s books published between 1999 and 2006. As with fans of SuperWhoLock, you can always tell when someone read A Series of Unfortunate Events as a kid. No comment on my own exposure to such books.

6. Crucially, the childhood perception of a “grown-up” is hopelessly broad because as kids we don’t have real qualifications for what constitutes a grown-up. To elementary schoolers, a 16-year-old might as well be a 36-year old. There is absolutely no discerning of “older people”, and anyone older than middle school belongs to the Adult Monolith of better judgement and more responsibility. This works the other way too—“child” and “adult” are concepts dependent on the simplification of one another. This tenuousness of the construct of the child is bolstered by Sultana Ali Norozi’s succinct overview of recent age-relativity theory, in which she writes about “human beings” vs. “human becomings.” Anyone over an arbitrary threshold already is, and those under are still becoming. Sultana Ali Noroziand Torill Moen, “Childhood as a Social Construction.” Journal of Educational and Social Research 6.2 (2016): 75. Accessed online, Dec. 2019.

7. My Drunk Kitchen, for example, was a show predicated on an activity that, by definition, was aimed at college students and older; surely Jacksfilms existed in a universe of 20somethings that us kids happened to stumble upon (all of his friends were older, their lives and identities more developed, their jokes a little too mature). In actuality, My Drunk Kitchen’s premise excluded most of its actual audience, and Jacksfilms was not a relatable figure but an aspirational one. The best kind of art feels like it was created with you in mind—like the creator has tapped into something you possess but can’t access on your own. But a close second is art that makes you feel like you are peering into something you have very little reference point for, and are maybe far from understanding, but can mesmerized by. Late 2000s YouTube nailed this experience.

8. Deflating is, of course, a massive understatement; the whole thing is actually incredibly sinister. It confirms how little time it took for the utopian notion of a for-the-people-by-the-people video streaming site to become susceptible to the same hierarchies as the culture-prescriptive television world. Similarly, there was always something “a little off” about most of the sex-obsessed male YouTubers; lo and behold, the past 5 years have revealed slews of them to have been abhorrent and destructive predators.

9. The notorious MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) recently shed light on the process behind the designation of films as G, PG, PG-13, or R. As it turns out, a film’s rating is (somewhat puzzlingly) at the discretion of a board of anonymous LA parents who determine what constitutes “adult themes.” Dave Banks, “Today’s MPAA Ratings Hold Little Value for Parents,” WIRED. 10 Apr. 2012. Accessed online,

10. Eden Litt  and Eszter Hargittai, “The Imagined Audience on Social Network Sites,” Social Media + Society, Jan. 2016..

11. The other text I could find that posits a similar figure is, strangely, Fredric Jameson’s “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” which suggests the inadvertent invention of a “ideal reader” when Western audiences read unfamiliar third-world texts. The Other reader, in this instance, is conceived to mediate a text’s foreignness; the “ideal reader” is essentially an ambassador who can fill in the gaps between cultures, who assures us the text is readable on its own terms and can forgive whatever errors arise in translation. Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text, no. 15, 1986, pp. 65–88.

12. Lynn Deboeck, “Pushing the Boundaries: Performing Research,” PARtake: The Journal of Performance as Research, vol. 1, no. 1, 2016.

13. Ibid., 6.

14. On that night I had taken the 35 bus east from Halsted to hop on the Red Line at Sox which I took north to Clark & Division.

Asher White has faked it a few times but never with you.