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In Search of the Most Defensible YouTube Video

December 3rd, 2009 by Christian

(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.

Saget Americas Funniest Home Videos

(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)[1].  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.[2]

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).


[1] Herta Herzog, (1941) “On Borrowed Experience: An Analysis of Listening to Daytime Sketches,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9(65).

[2] Henry Jenkins.  (1992).  Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture.  New York: Routledge.

4 Responses to “In Search of the Most Defensible YouTube Video”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Great Post Christian! I thought right away of…well, not a video, but a book. There’s this book I’ve seen some chatter about, The Ubiquitous Persuaders, where some advert guy is writing about how all the viral campaigns, the diffused, immersive lifestyle branding, are failing, and how big blunt advertising is still gonna rule the day. Something about the way you’re posing the question takes me to a different place than “the-internet-will-just-be-the-old-stuff-all-over-again.” Your question here makes me think of BOTH spheres differently, as if there are dynamics in each that are in no way determined by the infrastructure. I’d say that on PBS, for example, Frontline is the show I’d save, the most important. The fact that it gets low ratings in the big scheme of things has less to do with its place within the mediascape than with the fact that at 8pm after work most people don’t want to turn on the TV and get more convicted about some terrible thing happening in the world. The same is true of that mythical clip out there on Youtube, the one that actually shows Dick Cheney making a phone call to Osama Bin Laden. People would rather watch someone get kicked in the nuts – WHEN THEY ARE LOOKING FOR A WAY TO KILL SOME TIME. It would be great to get a breakdown of youtube hits by where and when people watch them – what would be the most popular clips viewed by people who watched them because they were told to by a boss/teacher/parent? What would be the most popular youtube clips watched alone when no one else is in the house? ….when you know someone else is watching?…etc….Also I really want to know what some of the Internet-as-playground people would say to this post. I may pass it on to some listservs…

  2. Kevin Says:

    Oh I thought of a good example though! How about this one:
    It’s been viewed quite a lot, and I suspect for a mix of reasons that are tied to some of the issues you bring up. I won’t say more for now except that it’s a video I would have been unlikely to look but which found me virally, one I’m glad I saw.

  3. Christian Says:

    Thanks, Kevin.

    Now I see more clearly that what I want is impossible. I want the information in a YouTube video to save the life of a telegenic baby — or maybe the President of the United States. I want it to be viewed a billion times. It should be composed in a revolutionary aesthetic style with no budget, and it should have been rejected by every single mainstream media outlet in existence. Ideally the creator would be a feral boy raised by wolves without previous exposure to anything televisual.

    Clearly this is just my laziness talking. If that happened the argument for “amateur” access to wide Internet distribution would be easier to make, but I would also be out of a job. No need for hard arguments then.

    I should note that the popularity part is important. Without a large audience this is more of a “long tail” thing and that is not what is interesting. That is, the distribution infrastructure is much more expensive for a large audience and an intervention in the commercial structure is harder to justify — hence my need for an compelling example and argument in the first place. Important, small(er) audience work (Frontline?) is a different thing.

    Oh hey and what a great YouTube URL. Great example and it looks like it is already over 800K views.

    I’m also totally on board with justifying the participatory culture we have in its own terms but still my laziness calls me to request an example that is conventionally, instrumentally, and readily compelling. The “most defensible” YouTube video.


  4. archivegrl Says:

    Sometimes I think we’re playing the wrong game when we look to define participation as viewing, and success as popularity. I mean, it’s nice and all to pin the tail on the donkey’s a__, but what we really need is for the animal to kick its way out of the frame and take us off into new territories.

    Think about everyone’s old favorite, McLuhan for a sec. In his breakdown, the last generation tech’s form becomes the new generation tech’s content – and indeed, it sounds to me like you’re looking for television as a structural form to be recreated on the web. That misses the point of what participatory web participation with video is, or rather, is becoming.

    While I too want to know what sequence of images will have brought about the revolution/messiah/peace on earth/enlightenment/justice/full civic engagement in democracy/end to false consciousness, etc—- that’s the dilemma television has so far failed to solve.

    Our dilemma has barely been formulated. Perhaps it is in the nature of connections. What pattern can the image-flow/data-flow make apparent and who will connect through the shared viewing of these images, so that the revolution/messiah/peace on earth/enlightenment/justice/full civic engagement in democracy, etc.

    I think we haven’t yet curated the important youtube videos that have been seen as a result of our growing ability to flex our current media form. We don’t know how to read them yet.

    Perhaps taken together, the trophy videos from the soldiers in Iraq:

    along with

    the cell phone hanging of Saddam:

    along with

    the Abu Graib images:

    and the subsequent official response, recirculated:

    will have been important, will have shown us something, and connected us over something that we will have acted on.

    Or maybe the 2006 videos that we can think of as a pair or cluster- when during the Israeli-Lebanon war/conflict regular people located in the crossfire on either side uploaded their experiences of their respective bomb shelters:
    There’s knowledge in these two videos taken together.

    Perhaps the street-level video from the RNC that shows riot police in terminator outfits pre-arresting demonstrators and the press:

    Perhaps that song sung from everywhere at once, that says no matter who you are, someday you’re going to need to connect with a real person – seen by more than 15 million people:

    Too early to eat the donkey, I think. It’s still got legs.

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