Over the past decade, authors have begun to explore the potential of platform literature, an emergent genre of electronic literature that is devised for, published on and distributed through online platforms, most commonly social media. These multimodal literary works translate the structural affordances of the platforms on which they are published (including the 280 characters of the tweet; the phatic communicative potential of interacting with Facebook statuses; the participatory forum of the YouTube comments section) into strict textual poetics that delimit the potential meaning of a piece of writing. The raison d’être of platform literature is to explore the expressive potential of these rigid digital forms; therefore, we as critics must develop a suitably media-specific approach to reckoning with them. This article proposes platformalism, a descriptive formalist analysis of platform-instantiated texts, as a method of approaching these new texts. The article begins to answer James O’Sullivan’s call for a ‘quasi-structuralist’ turn in studying electronic literature, and systematic scholarship ‘almost artificially conscious of the instruments and technicalities by which digital artists achieve representation’ (2019: 50). A platformalist approach draws from sociology and new media studies to describe the poetics of platforms and the extent to which their themes and content add to those poetics; in particular, whilst being replicable and applicable to other author-platform relationships (for example, recent “Twitterature” and, as will be suggested later, “Instapoetry”), platformalism offers useful insights into the methods and effects of performance poets’ use of YouTube.1

Performance poetry, a type of verse specifically composed for oral delivery and open to improvisation emulates its live dynamics on the multimodal webpages of YouTube. Through this site, a massive audience separated across time and space can have a shared experience that, in its affective ability to constitute a community, emulates physical liveness. YouTube pages facilitate online liveness by being multimodal, with plural modes of expression, visual, textual, audio or otherwise. However, while poets may use YouTube to reach a larger audience on a more egalitarian, intimate and collaborative level, the cost of doing so is often the commodification of this very sense of authenticity in viral video advertising revenue. This reflects Jean Burgess and Joshua Green’s (2018) idea of a tension between two competing YouTubes: one geared towards professional production, and the other toward scale and near-ubiquity.

Watts proposes that honesty and accessibility have become buzzwords for the subordination of poetry and the fetishization of the poet themselves. Hollie McNish’s YouTube poems use the first-person confessional lyric and anecdotes to address social issues such as gender inequality, female objectification, race hate and immigration, reflective of the specific political enquiry and liberal ideals of performance (in particular, slam) poetry (Somers-Willett 2009). In her videos, the poet dominates the mise en scène, standing in the centre of the frame and lit from behind the camera. She talks directly down the lens to the viewer with a plain background referencing the vernacular aesthetic of webcam vlogging, a ‘genre of communication [that] invites critique, debate and discussion’ (Burgess and Green 2018: 81). The video resolution is low (360p), and the grainy picture suggests that the clips may have been filmed on a webcam, reinforcing an authentic aesthetic of amateurism.2 The positioning of honesty as an aesthetic priority leads to the assumption that poetry is a ‘naturally occurring phenomena,’ rather than something deliberately crafted (Watts 2018). According to Watts’ reading, this befits the underlying neoliberal politics of social media reflected in this new poetic movement. Marketplace competition precipitates a fetishization of the individual and the breakdown of the boundary between artwork and artist, rearticulating Dana Gioia’s (2003: 41) observation, made two years before the creation of YouTube, that ‘the amplified bard’ is symptomatic of a ‘celebrity culture based on personalities’. McNish’s decision in Plum to juxtapose poetry from the present with juvenilia from her past is seen by Watts as a calculated tactic to cultivate a marketable persona of the creative genius, as ‘she curates her self-image as a writer in possession of her full talents from the start’ (Watts 2018). McNish is a member of what Watts labels the personality poets, all of which publish and promote their poetry on social media platforms. These personalities skew young and female, with Lang Leav, Rupi Kaur, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish listed as examples.

By contrast, McNish’s use of YouTube is similar to what Andrew Flinn (2010) labels a community archive. Communities can form around identifications such as ethnicity, faith, and sexuality, as well as shared cultural identifiers such as tastes. A community archive attempts to ‘actively transform and intervene in otherwise partial and unbalanced histories,’ as well as ‘preserve and make accessible material that is usually not available elsewhere’ (Flinn 2010: 40). The young and female social media poets seek to circumvent and counter the predominantly male gatekeepers, institutions and canons of print publishing. The impulse towards accessibility is manifested in McNish’s removal of the restrictive physical obligation to attend a performance poetry set at a given time and place. In her pointed blog commentary of Watts’ PN Review article, McNish describes how she

only put my poems online at the request of a teacher attending one of my gigs who wanted to know how he could share a particular piece with his class, many of whom would not be able to – afford to/be too intimidated to/have no transport to enable them to – get to a gig.

The YouTube user “Hollie McNish” has over 21,000 subscribers to her channel, with accumulated views across the channel’s uploads of 4.5 million. McNish’s uploads closely mimic physical performance, although there is only one instance of a recording of an actual live performance on McNish’s channel, the poem “Megatron (Transformers)”. The performance is filmed as part of the event “Bang Said the Gun: Pagematch” at The Roundhouse in London. McNish describes it as a ‘word wrestling show, so excuse the lycra and joke aggression,’ reflecting the historical practices of competitive slam poetry (McNish 2014). These practices are influenced by Anglo-European vaudeville, televised wrestling, and punk performance (Hoffman 2013; Somers-Willett 2009). The role of the audience in generating a convincing performance is important as ‘audience members [are] brought closer together through their common understanding of the events transpiring in the ring’ (Hoffman 2013: 202). Additionally, the punk influence on slam poetry sets it against the literary establishment, and the gatekeepers of print culture.

The social topics of McNish’s videos often provoke audience responses, and the majority of these are positive affirmations: responding to “Merida from Brave,” one user reveals ‘I would have pressed like but I felt I wanted to let you know how much i loved this:) [sic]’ (McNish 2013c).3 However, some comments voice disagreement with the poet. In “Cupcakes or Scones” (February 2013), McNish observes the double standard in condemning paedophilia and sexual harassment towards young girls, whilst simultaneously sexualising youth in adult women. McNish is ‘tired of every female fad telling me I should still be a child,’ an axiom indicative of a ‘little girlie culture’ that encourages infantilizing behaviour (McNish 2013a). Rather than ignore these dissenters, McNish replies to them in order to add more nuance to her own argument, and sometimes even intercedes in arguments between commenters. One commenter argues that ‘there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia,’ and that dressing as a schoolgirl can be an escapist exercise: McNish agrees that fantasies and nostalgia can be positive, but she wants to tackle the myth that ‘there’s no fun in being older.’ (McNish 2013a). Similarly, a commenter suggests that cutesy and sexy looks should be equally desirable: McNish responds by admitting that ‘I don’t think it’s weak or submissive [to be cute] and completely argee [sic] with what you say’ (McNish 2013a). Returning to Flinn’s conception of community archives, authority is shared between all contributors regardless of being the original poster or a subsequent commenter (Flinn 2010). McNish draws these comments back into the text’s totality by acknowledging them to refine her own argument, a participatory poetics afforded for by the platform’s participatory nature.4

Users often link to another video on YouTube to justify an argument in an act of intertextuality. One user responds to “Cupcakes or Scones” with another example of infantilization: ‘I only wish you’d included Brazilians […] another way to make women look like little girls’ (McNish 2013a) McNish replies to the comment, saying ‘Yeah, pubic hair is a huge issue’ before linking to the video “Shaving Grace,” a poem about unrealistic pubic hair standards by McNish’s fellow performance poet Leanne Moden (McNish 2013a). Not only does YouTube create an audience community, but the ability to link enables poets to share each other’s work and reveal allusions, influences and inspirations and forms an online coterie. Commenters also use the archive to convey a reaction with intertextual humour. In response to a user’s misreading of McNish’s poem “Hate” (June 2013), one such post links to the video “You are so dumb, you are really dumb, for real,” a three second clip taken from the musical remix “Bed Intruder Song” (McNish 2013d). The clip is an example of a meme, a term derived from Richard Dawkins’ concept of a cultural unit of transmission analogous to a gene: it is an intertextual digital item that circulates and is transformed online by many users (Shifman 2014). Whilst the nonsensical meme lacks meaning in its qualitative content, it carries affective meaning in how it constitutes a community of shared tastes, and ‘the citational qualities imbedded in memes (as all instances refer to a shared core) make them a powerful social glue’ (Katz and Shifman 2017: 837). The use of the ubiquitous “Bed Intruder Song” constructs a sense of community between viewers who are digitally literate enough to understand what is signified in its intertextual allusion.

When applied to YouTube’s comments section, it is possible to see how the participation of users digitally instantiates the audience-artist dynamic of performance. This is also the case on McNish’s blogpost response to Rebecca Watts, with commenters using the participatory affordances of the blog page to enter into a multivocal discourse on Watts’ critique (McNish 2018a). The comments section is indicative of online liveness, and the ubiquity of digital technology in cultural consumption means liveness should be reconceived as an affective experience (Auslander 2008; Couldry 2004). Alongside the separate temporalities of diegetic narrative events and the textual narration of those events, the transparent visuality of digital narrative interfaces introduces a third axis: user interface time (Punday 2018). UI time can be measured through embodied interactions with hardware that are manifested through application programming interfaces and programming languages, the poem further accreting content as it is affected by users. This explains how a text can continue to accrue external links, views and comments in a self-perpetuating cycle for years after its original posting online. By being a user on a similar level to the users of the audience, poets such as Hollie McNish can communicate with the audience on a more generous level than in a physical performance space, due to the extended user interface time beyond the performance and its repetitions. This is equally true of the creation of community in an audience. YouTube comments digitally and textually mimic the physical co-presence of the artist and audience, whilst also providing new and larger scales for that interaction.

Similarly, Coca Cola’s advertisement “The Wonder of Us”, which aired during the final quarter of the 2018 Super Bowl, centres on a poem written by ad copywriter Becca Wadlinger, who holds a PhD in Poetry and Creative Writing. Wadlinger’s poem is performed by a diverse group of readers alternating line readings. The poem concludes:

We all have different looks and loves,
likes and dislikes, too—
But there’s a Coke for we and us,
and there’s a Coke for you.
(Coca-Cola 2018)


The 2018 ad is firmly in the tradition of the iconic 1971 TV advert “Hilltop,” in which a chorus of singers – an ethnically diverse group of different ages and genders – sing that they would like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. Wadlinger ‘wanted to work in that tradition, but to do something that would feel special, really bright and positive, and would again bring to life Coke’s long-held values of inclusiveness and optimism’ (Moye 2018). The result is a poem that offers a commercial product (a Coke) as both an object around which a community of shared tastes can form (as opposed to having different likes and dislikes), and as an individualistic identifier of preference and personality.5 The apostrophic address to the viewer hailed as “you” in both the A+E and Coca-Cola advertisements, reflects how literature on online platforms remains generic enough to appeal to a wide audience, enabling circulation. Rupi Kaur’s poetry on Instagram has been criticized for precisely this: it is ‘just vague enough to appeal to the widest possible demographic’ (Giovanni 2017). The presence of demographics in critical treatments of “Instapoets” such as Rupi Kaur illustrate the extent to which poetic authenticity (art) and the personal branding of social networks (content) are intertwined.

Button Poetry, a Minnesota-based poetry publishers, distributes videos of performance poetry on YouTube and has over 1 million subscribers. In light of how ‘YouTube has begun blocking many videos from monetizing at all due to pressure from advertisers,’ Button Poetry ‘refuse[s] to be beholden to commercial ideas of what’s “safe”’ (“YouTube FAQ”). YouTube pays 55% of a video’s ad revenue to the video’s channel, which Button Poetry suggests has averaged to around $1.50–$2.00 paid per thousand views, varying widely across the channel. The majority of Button’s income ‘goes toward paying camera operators, editors, curators, and the other staff who help create the final videos’: each video costs approximately $75–$100 to produce (“YouTube FAQ”). For redistributing the remainder, Button has established a tiered, view-based policy. This supplements the Button Poetry Patreon page, where in September 2016 the editors of Button Poetry asked: ‘if a hundred random people can see these performances and fall in love, what if we could show them to a thousand? To ten thousand? To a million?’ (“Button Poetry,” patreon.com). All patrons (or Buttoneers) have the opportunity to join the community advisory board giving feedback on projects. Patreon is an online membership platform that enables fans to patronize their favourite artists, podcasts or content producers for a regular donation. The platform reinterprets systems of literary subscription-based patronage for the digital age: it allows smaller and repeated payments rather than one-off pledges; there is no goal or limit that has to be reached before the transfer of funds to the artist; and the process is not reward-centric, as the content supported exists for free whether the patron invests or not (Swords 2017). Artists themselves take on the role of intermediary and serve a range of functions, and whilst bonus rewards may be offered, the core product is still available without charge.6

The act of signing up to the email newsletter is rewarded with Button Poetry’s first ebook, Viral (2013). Viral anthologizes the nine poems that – in 2013 – received more than 200,000 views on YouTube, alongside new original work from their authors: Javon Johnson, Dylan Garity, Neil Hilborn, Rachel Rostad, Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhte, Pages Matam, and Lily Myers. Gathering together a series of texts that cumulatively has over 14 million views on YouTube at the time of publication, the book was seen as a riposte to ‘article after article offering autopsies of some small, misshapen thing the author called poetry’ (Viral). Yet, for this argument to have authority, the new forms of viral poetry that were being created were petrified within the confines of an eBook, distributed as a portable document format (PDF) file. Rather than existing as democratic live performances on YouTube, these spoken poems are raw material to be published in the rarefied, fixed and distinctly archival medium of the downloaded instruction manual, the eBook, and the academic article (Auslander 2008; Gitelman 2014). The viewing figures of the audience are economized in assigning aesthetic value to poetry and subsequently creating a representative mass-produced cultural product.

Preceding Hollie McNish’s own collection Plum, a self-deprecating poetic epigraph describes an opposing editorial strategy: ‘as if a million views on YouTube/ means those poems are the best…/ if I’d shat into a bucket/ I’d have ten million views instead’ (2017b). The number of views is not directly correlative to the quality of the poetry; rather, I argue that McNish uses the poetics of YouTube to instantiate the intimacy of live performance in digital form. A platformalist approach enables us to correlate the affordances of the participatory platform with the poetics of liveness they precipitate, emulating slam performance online. By developing a multimodal text over time, a singular video can draw together an audience community, all with common passions, affinities and interests. Conceiving of a YouTube webpage as a literary work, it is simultaneously a performance and the performance’s transcription, constantly retranscribing itself as the video accretes interactions over user interface time. McNish does not, however, completely resist YouTube’s propensity to economize every encounter with the platform. Her poetry remains ambivalent about the role that corporations and pecuniary interests play in a far-reaching and accessible medium that is, in itself, a subsidiary of a multinational company.

## Notes

1. Such an approach can be situated within discussions of literary criticism’s growing synonymity with a hermeneutics of suspicion, symptomatic reading style and paranoid mood, and a call for an opposing, more affirmative notion of postcritique (Latour 2004; Sedgwick 2004). As Rita Felski observes on the first page of The Limits of Critique (2015), ‘texts do not willingly yield up their meanings […] apparent content shrouds more elusive or ominous truths’ (Felski 2015: 1, my emphasis). On online platforms, content is king and the limits of critique’s depth-based methodology are made manifest. [^]
2. After July 2013, the production values of McNish’s videos increase as the recordings start to be filmed in 720p HD quality. Uploads in this period, such as ‘Breasts’ and ‘Anyone’s Anyone’ are readings from her book Nobody Told Me (2016), McNish moving away from the poetry performance and towards the marketed poetry reading. Two professionally produced videos for McNish’s poems ‘Embarrassed’ and ‘Pink or Blue’ are uploaded in June 2016 and August 2017 respectively, both directed by Jake Dypka. [^]
3. YouTube comments will be quoted verbatim, with all erroneous spelling or syntax left intact. The role of trolling in performance poetry on YouTube is outside the scope of this article. There are very few instances of trolling in McNish’s videos, and whilst it may be attractive to link virtual trolling with physical heckling, the former often references a context outside of the video whereas the latter addresses the poet themselves. [^]
4. Critical discussions also occur between commenters. A user takes umbrage with “Merida from Brave,” suggesting McNish’s poem maintains an unhelpful binary between ‘badass rough and tumble princess’ and ‘kickass glory winning queen’ (McNish 2013c). Two different users then respond, the second beginning a lengthy correspondence with the original commenter about Merida’s character arc in the film. Observing the lengthy discussion in retrospect, McNish herself offers a postscript opinion: ‘she’s not real […] the author of her character is the best one to look at for this’ (McNish 2013c). Again, the comments section is important in reinforcing McNish’s poetics of persuasion and affectively constituting a community in conversation. [^]
5. Alongside Jay Moye’s explanatory article on the official Coca-Cola branding website is a photograph of a handwritten copy of Wadlinger’s poem, sitting on her desk. Yet on closer inspection the manuscript pictured is actually the campaign’s print advertisement, a mocked-up script of the poem’s text where each line is written in a different hand visually articulating the spoken performance’s multivocality. The precise, pointed intention of the poem’s promotional design is obscured by the manufactured aura of authenticity. [^]
6. However, Button Poetry’s use of YouTube as an intermediary may be set to change after the announcement of Button TV in October 2018. Their content will be hosted on a closed subscription-based service akin to Netflix and Amazon Prime, and not rely entirely on the unreliable income of YouTube advertising. [^]

## Competing Interests

The author declares that they have no competing interests.

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