(or: “Miley Cyrus Squeezes Out Laughing Babies?“)
I write about media technology. Lately I have been doing some research on online video distribution. Every day this topic is getting more mainstream, but I still avoid describing myself as a “YouTube researcher.” If I did, I’m sure the first image to come to mind would probably be me closely studying a laughing baby (below; 98 million views on YouTube to date) or maybe the Evolution of Dance (131 million views)
(click for video)
It’s not that Media Studies has ever been held in particularly high regard as an important subject (though the cinema people keep trying), but when writing about online video there’s an even greater presumption of frivolousness. As I am often arguing about the valuable role of public media and media generated by what we used to call “the audience,” I get stuck between the dead-boring vibe of PBS pledge drives and scenes of people freaking out on their webcams. Either this is perceived a good-for-you but not something we’d actually watch (PBS), or it’s momentarily amusing but perceived as ultimately valueless (YouTube freakout).
What I need is to unearth an kind of ur-example of the value of participatory media. Some instance of obvious widespread social value that came from a non-traditional source and spread via the Internet. A fantastic visual expose of some important social issue that was rejected/ignored by the mainstream media until thanks to (ta daa…) Internet distribution it gained a wide audience and some really important social change resulted.
Censorship in other countries has led to some well-known examples there (e.g., the Neda Soltan video in Iran) but I have a hard time thinking of an effective example in the U.S. When I ask people for ideas I get things like “Dancing Parrot on YouTube Leads to Scientific Theory” and sure, I’m glad that ornithology and neuroscience are moving forward but I’m hoping for a little more PUNCH. Or I get people referring to Matt Drudge and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I’m hoping for a little less SLEAZE.
Some people speculate that Internet video is leading to new experiments in aesthetic form — by this theory we should be looking for the Francois Truffaut of grainy 30-second pratfall videos (220,000 views) and, once found, this will establish the medium’s value. I don’t think so. It will take a while to see if we have a new art form that achieves widespread recognition and I’m not keen to wait. Also I’m not sure I want to let “high culture” decide this one for me.
But I guess low culture doesn’t sound like a good way to argue it, either.
(YouTube c. 1989)
There is an area of scholarly research about participatory media and lately it hasn’t helped me with this problem. Trying to figure out what the group formerly known as “the audience” is up to has a long tradition (from Herta Herzog’s classic “On Borrowed Experience” in the 1940s). The participatory media people are often interested in what the participators are up to regardless of what they are doing. From Textual Poachers and beyond, a lot of brainpower has been used to justify seemingly-frivolous fan activity as actually important.
I’m mostly on board with that, but… can’t we come up with a really kick-ass example that doesn’t require this argument? What is it that participatory mediamakers are doing that is obviously crucial for society … not seemingly-frivolous activity that we have to defend.
In some areas the nontraditional producers already have access to a broad audience. Popular YouTube videos now rival or surpass the viewership of Super Bowl commercials. (Partly because Super Bowl commercials don’t reach an audience as large as you might think.) I think this is a useful comparison because they are both often quite short and we think of the Super Bowl ads as the most exclusive short venue for the televisual since Apple’s 1984 ads.
The news today is that if you look at the most popular YouTube videos of all time, the nontraditional creators are no longer what this platform seems to be providing. (At least, when considering access to the large audience that very popular videos on YouTube reach.) I didn’t do a systematic study of this, but as I periodically check this page over the last few years I’ve noticed that professionally produced music videos are slowly pushing out all of the laughing babies. This is entirely predictable as music videos are easier to monetize for YouTube, the company that has to pay the bandwidth bill. We would expect them to more frequently feature and recommend videos that are profitable for them and videos that advertisers are happy to juxtapose their advertisements with. More MTV, less homebrew spastic webcam teens, in other words. They’re turning back to the older model of broadcasting.
So let me open it up to you. If I want to argue that non-traditional video creators need access to a large audience, is there a good example of their value that I can use to justify this? What is the most defensible example you can think of that shows that non-traditional video creators are doing something obviously useful that should be protected? This is not an idle question, as from here it looks like in the contest for our attention the non-traditional creators are on the way out.
After they’re gone, when I say I am a media researcher who studies YouTube I guess people will think of Miley Cyrus (106 million views).
 Herta Herzog, (1941) “On Borrowed Experience: An Analysis of Listening to Daytime Sketches,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9(65).
 Henry Jenkins. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.
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