Last week, the eighth annual Shorty Awards were held in New York City. The awards ceremony recognizes and honors various people and organizations for their influential presence on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Vine and YouTube. What the Oscars are for movies, the Shortys aspire to be for social media.
Each year a panel of media luminaries ranging from Huffington Post editor Arianna Huffington to Food Network star Alton Brown collaborate to dole out awards in categories like “Youtuber of the Year,” “Vine Comedian” and for the best use of social media by an actor.
The existence of the Shortys speaks to the ever-increasing influence of short-form, digital content on the entertainment world as a whole. In the last few years, the awards show has grown — previous winners include Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Yet when quizzed about the ceremony, most participants are decidedly irreverent. “It’s great to be amongst fellow narcissists,” comedian Hannibal Buress said in his acceptance speech last year. “I did keep my acceptance speech to 140 characters,” Alton Brown said at a previous show. In her stint as host, actress Rachel Dratch addressed the audience, saying, “You all have one thing in common, and that is, your parents don’t understand what you do.” Last year, a person in a poop costume sauntered onstage to collect the award for “Best Emoji.”
The self-effacing attitude assumed by those involved is indicative of both the advantages and the problems presented by the social media platforms celebrated at the Shortys. This type of entertainment thrills and engages because it is unrefined, honest and informal. However, retaining this spirit while still presenting a professional and legitimate product is a difficult task. Such is the great challenge of the Shortys.
Striking the right balance is still possible, as evidenced by this year’s “YouTuber of the Year” award recipient, Casey Neistat. Neistat is hard to define in conventional terms, a celebrity who could only exist in the digital age. Equal parts filmmaker, freelance advertisement director, skateboarder, tech geek, runner, carpenter, world traveler and obsessive vlogger, Neistat’s YouTube channel consists almost entirely of short videos of his daily life. Each video — uploaded daily — lasts around 10 minutes, documenting the 35-year-old New Yorker’s creative process and constant jet-setting.
His videos are, simultaneously, completely raw and totally polished. Neistat approaches life with a filmmaker’s eye, never missing an opportunity to interject an unconventional shot or jump cut into his daily accounts. Often, he cuts himself off mid-sentence en route to a different topic. Leaving his house is preceded by a clip of his feet walking in front of a camera on the floor. Driving between appointments means an aerial shot of the family minivan heading down the road. Each daily video exudes artistry to an almost compulsive degree.
Neistat intersperses stories about himself with beautiful panoramas filmed by automated drones. When he isn’t talking, airy techno music propels the shots, but when Neistat addresses the audience he does so candidly and directly. He talks about his family and his creative process, but he also shares when he’s bored. “Flight takes off in like an hour and a half. We’re gonna hit the lounge, get some snacks,” he says in a video, strolling through John F. Kennedy International airport.
Casey Neistat is exactly the kind of person the Shortys should be honoring. His daily work is meticulously edited and ingeniously compiled, full of uncensored life, yet as crisp and artful as the work of any studio professional. He is in turns funny, inspirational and enviable, and his production schedule is unflinching in a way unique to his platform. He represents the great potential of short-form, digital art — as both accessible and intellectual.
For social media to be regarded as art — for the Shortys to be legitimized — the content being produced and celebrated must look like art. It must be beautiful as much as it is intimate. Neistat’s recognition is a positive omen for his burgeoning craft, and it shows that in the right hands, this two-pronged goal is not only achievable, but eminently so. Social media is on an upward, intellectual track, which Neistat is confident will continue. In his acceptance speech last week, he concluded by saying, “Thank you to everyone in this room who is a part of this, and a part of the future.”