A Critical Cultural Reading of "YouTube"

A Critical Cultural Reading of "YouTube"

Luc Pauwels (University of Antwerp, Belgium) and Patricia Hellriegel (Lessius University College, Belgium)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-208-4.ch025
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This chapter looks into YouTube as one of the most popular Social Software platforms, challenging the dominant discourse with its focus on community formation and user empowerment. On the basis of an analysis of the steering mechanisms embodied in the infrastructure as well as empirical observations of YouTube’s content fluctuations during a period of time, insight is provided into the embedded cultural values and practices and into the nature of the ongoing negotiation of power and control between the YouTube controllers (owners, designers, editors) and the “prosumers”. This exploratory study is theoretically inspired by Michel de Certeau’s ideas of utilization as a productive activity involving strategic and tactical behaviour. Methodologically the model for ‘hybrid media analysis’ (Pauwels 2005) is taken as a point of departure for analysing various aspects of the Website’s platform (including structure, design, hyperlinks, imagery, topics and issues). This model is geared towards decoding the multimodal structure of Websites and their social and cultural significance.
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Questioning dominant discourses on Web 2.0, SNS and YouTube

In the dominant discourse about Web 2.0 and ‘Social Software’ in particular, it is often suggested that this major next step in Web related development - as complacently claimed by the number 2.0 - represents a truly revolutionary development in the on-line world. The most distinctive features in this regard are the so-called ‘social’ aspects attributed to the set up of the 2.0 applications and to its resulting user practices.

Marked differences with ‘Web 1.0’ applications are the clear shift from desktop to the Web with the effect that everything created is already on line and can be shared immediately (Rhie 2000); the fact that the programming code is often released1, thus allowing anyone to refine, rethink and add functionality; and finally the fact that applications are in general easy to use and available for free, and as such within the reach of many.

Also with respect to the ‘content’ and the related practices of use, there is a strong ‘social’ focus. Interacting with peers is a key part of many Web 2.0 applications and of social networking sites in particular. Social Networking Sites (SNS) can be described as ‘Websites that allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within the system and formally articulate their relationship to other users in a way that is visible to anyone who can access their profile’ (Boyd & Ellison 2007). Next to the personal information and connections displayed in the on-line profiles, many a SNS also contains other types of content uploaded by users, e.g. on Bebo.com, self-written stories, poems and books are available, on MySpace.com one can listen to free music and through YouTube, people share short videos. This form of Do-It-Yourself content production and sharing is considered by some the very essence of Web 2.0. The growing popularity of this practice is considered to have far reaching consequences (Gillmor 2006, p.XV):

Grassroots journalism is part of the wider phenomenon of citizen generated media production of a global conversation that is growing in strength, complexity and power. When people can express themselves they will. When they can do so with powerful yet inexpensive tools, they take to the new media realm quickly. When they can reach a potentially global audience, they literally can change the world.

While there is hardly anything new about on-line content being generated by non-professional users (cf. the fairly common practice of setting up homepages or family Websites using prefabricated templates, Pauwels 2008) or Web-users communicating/interacting with each other, Web 2.0 offers a platform to the average individual through which a vast number of people can be reached in a very interactive way and requiring few technical skills or financial resources.

Examples like Wikipedia are readily used to illustrate a newly acquired autonomy for users in creating self-organizing collaborates which arise bottom-up, liberated from control (Leadbeater 2007):

The power of mass creativity is about what the rise of the likes of Wikipedia and YouTube, Linux and Craigslist means for the way we organize ourselves, not just in digital businesses but in schools and hospitals, cities and mainstream corporations. My argument is that these new forms of mass, creative collaboration announce the arrival of a society in which participation will be the key organizing idea rather than consumption and work. People want to be players not just spectators, part of the action, not on the sidelines.

In this quite up-beat discourse about Web 2.0, the focus is clearly on the ‘citizen’ users: their control over content and development of technology and the way users interact on line with their peers. This ‘user-centeredness’ also dominates current research on YouTube. (i.e. Fonio et. al. 2007, Harp & Tremayne 2007, Lange 2007, Webb 2007).

At odds with this general idea of user-empowerment and autonomy is the fact that the Web 2.0 user-practices reside in a relatively small number of Websites controlled by powerful gatekeepers. Of all Web 2.0 applications, particularly the popularity of SNSs stands out. Over the last two to three years a more or less stable top ten has emerged. Figures indicate that these top SNS’s reach up to 45 percent of today’s active Web users.2

The number of unique monthly visitors to YouTube alone can be estimated at 55 to 75 million and over 65,000 videos are claimed to be uploaded to the site each day. Some sources rank MySpace as the most visited Website world-wide, surpassing even the Google search engine3. To sustain this kind of traffic, these Websites have to be powered by organisations with ample financial means. YouTube (launched April 2005) was acquired by Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion, and MySpace at present is part of the Murdoch media conglomerate News Corp. The direct revenue for all three of these SNSs stems from on-line advertising, and SNS advertising has a lot of exposure on a Website with hundreds of thousands of visitors a day. But perhaps even more interesting is the vast amount of collectable user data available (i.e. personal details, links and on-site surfing behaviour) to fuel the marketing machine.

Key Terms in this Chapter

YouTube: YouTube is a video sharing Website where users can upload, view and share video clips. YouTube was created in February 2005 by three former PayPal employees and contains a wide variety of user-generated video content, including movie clips, TV clips and music videos, as well as amateur content such as videoblogging and short original videos. In 2006, Google Inc. acquired the company.(source: Wikipedia).

Strategic and Tactic Interaction: These terms refer to Michel De Certeau’s distinction between ‘two logics of action’ linking “strategies” with institutions and structures of power, while “tactics” are utilized by individuals to create space for themselves in environments defined by strategies. Applied to Social Software the ‘strategic’ space is enacted by the Web site controllers and the set up which embodies already a set of values and goals, while the active users develop tactical behavior to counter the restrictions imposed by the infrastructure and controlling authorities.

Hybrid Media Analysis Model: ‘Hybrid Media Analysis Model’ (Pauwels 2005) which was developed from of an interest to culturally decode the multimodal structure of Websites proposes a number of possibly significant ‘cultural indicators or parameters’ of Websites as expressed by words, pictures, design features, navigational or narrative strategies. It starts with an analysis of the ‘Web internal level’, which is focused on discovering embedded cultural values and norms in the overall structure of Websites, their design features, navigational structures, content categories, the point(s) of view they embody, topics and views expressed (or significantly absent) in text, images and audio, the construction of the ‘implied’ or preferred audience, the linkages to other sites as indications of ideological or other types of affiliation, etc. But it also deals with issues related to the broader context of production and consumption.

Web 2.0: “Web 2.0 is a term describing changing trends in the use of World Wide Web technology and Web design that aims to enhance creativity, secure information sharing, collaboration and functionality of the Web. Web 2.0 concepts have led to the development and evolution of Web-based communities and its hosted services, such as social-networking sites, video sharing sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies. The term became notable after the first O’Reilly Media Web 2.0 conference in 2004. Although the term suggests a new version of the World Wide Web, it does not refer to an update to any technical specifications, but to changes in the ways software developers and end-users utilize the Web”. (source: Wikipedia)

social networking sites: Social Networking Sites (SNS) are Web based social network services focused “on building online communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others.” (source: Wikipedia)

Prosumer: A contraction of the terms ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ and as such referring to the fact that in contemporary media the role of producers and users are often mixed. Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumers would begin to blur and merge. In social software environments the more active users (as opposed to the mere ‘lurkers’) typically engage in the production of content. Some see the term ‘prosumer’ as a short for ‘professional consumer’.

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