YouTube, social media, and digital culture

NOTE: Now updated to reflect new dates.

In lieu of class Thursday (11/12), I’m going to ask you to watch the series of videos below (it’ll take you just more than an hour) and write a roughly 300-word response in which you connect Michael Wesch’s ideas with journalism and its emerging forms online. Please post your response in the comments section before Tuesday’s class (11/17).

These clips will serve as a good entree into our discussion next Thursday of online video and how it can be incorporated into your group blogs.
The question is, as the production and global dissemination of video has become ridiculously cheap and easy, what kind of implications does that have for visuals in (professional and amateur) journalism? How about for democracy in general and the press’ traditional role in mediating political messages?
You could also think about these things in light of “digital culture” — a concept that has been sprinkled into our discussions throughout this semester. Do news organizations today get the digital culture playing out on YouTube and in the broader realm of social media?
Yes, these videos are about anthropology and education, but for our purposes I want you to see them in the context of online journalism and its future. For instance, listen to what University of Florida journalism professor Mindy McAdams (the source of this assignment idea) had to say, in describing these very Wesch clips in relation to journalism today:
The newspaper and news industry discussions about what they call user-generated video miss the point. Seriously. All these news orgs fell all over themselves trying to hop on the online video bandwagon as fast as they could. Some of them thought UGC needed to be part of the mix, and some did not, but in either case, the rush to video had much to do with the explosion of YouTube.

The explosion of YouTube was only partly about video.

Only partly about video.

The other parts: community, sharing, communication, identity, self-expression.

Everybody in journalism needs to understand this. This is a huge piece that’s missing from the puzzle of how to save journalism.

Check out Professor McAdams’ notes on the Wesch presentation (and more here):

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15 Responses to “YouTube, social media, and digital culture”


  1. 1 Leigh. November 16, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    I think these videos — in particular the longer, “anthropological introduction to YouTube” — do a good job of illustrating this point McAdams is trying to make about how it’s only “partly about the video” and largely about the “community, sharing, communication, identity, [and] self-expression.”

    For example, take — as illustrated in the “anthropological intro…” video, the infamous “Numa Numa” video. That video is quite possibly the stupidest thing ever recorded, but the reason why it has become such a YouTube success story is not for its groundbreaking leaps in creative filming genius. No, it’s for the way that this simple video, essentially a home movie, can create an international sensation merely by the few clicks it took for a suburban teenager to upload it. This idea is what McAdams and other “new media” journalists are trying to get across — it’s another way of utilizing the idea of crowdsourcing.

    I think this is all really awesome, but it’s kind of…I don’t know if “scary” is the right word to use. It seems like the basis of the YouTube success story is that it doesn’t really matter WHAT the message is as much as HOW it gets distributed. I don’t know if this is fed off America’s obsession with pop culture and making transparent the fact that this is what people WANT, but it’s just so strange to me when I think about the fact that the home movies of people are becoming these huge worldwide sensations when people’s understanding of what’s actually going on in the world is decreasing. It’s not that I don’t understand the desire to watch a silly video clip, but at what point is it too much?

    I think it will be interesting to see what happens to YouTube as time progresses — will it follow the proposed model of blogs? In other words, critics claim that, even though “anyone can have a blog,” the best ones will eventually rise to the top and the bad ones will be filtered out. In this same way, will eventually the worthwhile videos be what survives, or will we perpetually be living in a place where “Numa Numa” dance is the most viewed video in the world?

  2. 2 Katherine Robinson November 16, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Even though the clip was a little long, it was quite insightful. Wesch explained the anthropology behind YouTube in a simple way which is easily connected with journalism. I agree on how he explained that people just want to be connected. Successful videos don’t have to cost millions of dollars to make; they can be simple but still present a message. His Web 2.0 clip cost nothing to make but ended up having millions of viewers. Social media is about linking people and information together. Society is constantly bombarded with social media on a daily basis. YouTube and linking people together is great for anyone who can put together a cheap video and make it into something spectacular. So it’s kind of refreshing that we now can all be professional video journalists. I’ve made videos of my own but none have ever had many viewers.

    I didn’t quite agree with what Minday McAdams when she said that journalists don’t seem to understand “…community, sharing, communication, identity, self-expression. Everybody in journalism needs to understand this. This is a huge piece that’s missing from the puzzle of how to save journalism.” Her comment seems very outdated. Many journalists, who I follow, have blogs and try to better connect with their community. I do think YouTube has played a role on providing journalists with guidelines to follow. YouTube has only been around for about five years while journalism has been here longer. This new form of video casting is here to stay for the greater good of Networked Individualism. I don’t think it’s going to harm journalism. At my internship with KXAN (NBC affiliate in Austin), all of the reporters use social media to promote themselves. Some of the reporters even post a lot of behind the scenes footage of what goes on at the studio to YouTube, allowing people to reconnect with them.

  3. 3 tiffanydiane November 16, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    It is incredibly interesting to see how many popular culture staples began on YouTube. I can honestly say, I was surprised by some of them… Each of Michael Wesch’s main anthropological focuses were good, valid examples of the point he was trying to make — that YouTube (and the Internet on a larger scale) is transforming the way we live our life massively through individualization and community.

    Numa Numa — I think it needs to be noted that not only did the Numa Numa video become a YouTube dancing sensation… I believe that TI and Rihanna’s song “Livin’ Your Life,” which features Numa Numa in the background and beginning, was influenced by the YouTube video. That is how viral such a small webcam effort can become. Because now, like Wesch noted about ABC’s costly programming and minimal viewership, you can make very little effort and be seen all around the globe (and for free). You can become a celebrity – IE: Chris Crocker “Leave Britney Alone!” – through YouTube, or at least be watched by somebody in Austria that never would have known of your existence before…

    Lonely Girl 15 — It is interesting that these World Wide Web portals can become something that individualizes your identity. It ends up defining you, what you upload, what you comment, how look, how you speak, etc. Thus, it is even more interesting that YouTube can become another realm for people. They aren’t necessarily only being themselves, which some of them are, but also augmented versions, specifically selected versions, etc. – like how that guy said that he does not usually talk to himself and use crazy gestures and yell. You can choose how you become perceived by many, which is totally unlike reality, but it becomes recognized as real.

    Soldier Boy — I had no idea that Soulja Boy began on YouTube, and I find that amazing, because I think that song is definitely recognized by most of the (less media savvy) masses as just a piece of popular culture. Little do they know, they are even taking part of the YouTube phenomenon. That’s amazing, that everybody is now becoming a part of this community, whether they like it or not. They are contributing to the popularity of YouTube and its newly found influence and power.

    Now, I feel like it is our job to harness this kind of power and influence and use it productively – not that the Numa Numa revolution was not productive… I believe that it is our job as human beings to harness all of our useful resources and use them in the most productive / least harmful way every, and this applies to YouTube. How can we as thriving young journalists use YouTube to spread our knowledge? The possibilities are endless.

  4. 4 jennifer November 16, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    On a personal level, I find the community and conversation created on YouTube fascinating, interesting, and exciting. But, when I look at YouTube from a journalistic standpoint it is, like Leigh said, almost…scary.

    What is great about the cheap and easy dissemination of video is it makes everyone a participant and it makes the conversation greater and more complex – an idea I think we have covered in class quite well. On the other (journalistic hand) though, if everyone has the power to do what a journalist does what is the commodity of the trade? It seems as though the journalist’s role as a public mediator is greatly diminished while at the same time giving journalists greater access to reach more people and serve the community better. It is a crazy concept and I’m not sure if I’m articulating it correctly but I see cheap and easy video production (like YouTube) as an incredibly powerful tool for journalists but an even more powerful tool for individuals and since it seems to be more powerful for the greater populous it inadvertently diminishes the power of the journalist.

    I think this concept plays an even bigger role when we start examining the implications of how journalists mediate politics and government. Again, this idea of everyone having a voice is incredibly powerful and exciting but it makes it harder for a journalist to be relevant and heard with so many new (great) voices.

    What I understood from these videos about YouTube and today’s classroom, is that when looking at all of these phenomenon as a journalist means that we have to evaluate what it means to BE a journalist. A journalist’s role in our culture is relevant and I think needs to remain intact but the key here is for future journalists to learn to harness the power of new media to improve the conversation. There were so many stories of how powerful YouTube is and how it has impacted people’s lives in the most simplistic ways – there is no reason journalism can’t do the same.

  5. 5 Bill Bowman November 16, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    I really enjoyed the video on youtube and the other shorter videos. They all had a revolutionary feel to them. I had never really thought about youtube as a community or pondered its real effects on people and the world. I would only use the site to find specific videos or viral videos but now I will look for the more community themed elements.

    There were many poignant and profound things in the videos. The part of the youtube video saying that many people nowadays live life against the law really made me pause to consider the affects of this penenomena. The student video confirmed things that I have known while attending college. The machine is us really visualizes the world and condenses it into a logical framework. I also enjoyed the humor in the video.

    In relation to journalism, the concept of dynamic, linking text and user creation is the most important. He described Digg and Delicious as “user driven aggregation.” This user driven aggregation is in contrast to journalist or professional driven aggregation and curation that has existed in the past and that some still seek to maintain.

    The role of professionals in content creation, in the age of youtube will obviously be changed. What use is there for those to create content when everyone does? The answer must be that journalists and media professionals must have high standards and innovate.

    They must include the masses in the debate and discussion surrounding stories and events. They must listen to the people. They need to be a “active journalists” and not “passive journalists”. An active journalist would tap into what people think, a passive one would assume they knew what they want.

    The videos really showed that the future is wide open and the changes will be coming fast. In this constantly changing environment, new media specialists will be even more important and vital to mediate the interactions between people and society.

  6. 6 Lonnica November 16, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Well first off, I loved the videos, especially the anthropology of Youtube one. While I thought it was really cool to learn about the Soulja Boy dance, the “Rihanna song”/Numa Numa, and the origins of lonelygirl15 and the love story between emo boy and girl, what was really amazing was the community that grew from Youtube. This is where people really opened themselves up to the world,something I would never personally do, especially online. Before watching this video, I only thought of Youtube as a place to search for funny clips.

    The only way I seen a relation between Youtube and journalism was really citizen journalism. Youtube, because it’s free and allows videos to be posted rather quickly, enabled citizens to post videos of events they seen that reporters might not have been able to get or just anything that they too wanted to share with the world.

  7. 7 Tim November 16, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    I think the hypothesis that YouTube can be used to demonstrate a broad, cross-cultural anthropological analysis is an entirely valid one. As seen throughout the video by Michael Wesch, there are enough examples of varying types of cultures, personalities, and social groups for an exhaustive study of the modern human condition and how it interacts with technology. Through his research, Wesch was able to find the communities that people have carved out for themselves online. People that use YouTube to communicate with the outside world also experience varying degrees of self-awareness. Some have even become hyper self-aware, and in the process have learned more about the way others perceive them than they ever would have in the pre-Internet days.

    In addition to its anthropological benefits, YouTube has served as a distinct marketing tool. It has created certain identifiable brands that only exist within its realm. Some can be effective tools of advertising, like the Souljaboy video, or some can be just silly and ridiculous, like the Souljaboy video.

    I think the main theme of these videos, though, is the theme of community. Wesch emphasizes the need for community in one’s life by referencing Bowling Alone, the book by Robert Putnam that described our designated social constructs as slowly breaking down due to the rapid expansion and our increased dependence on technology. Through cultural inversion, Web 2.0 encourages solitary activities such as individualism and independence, but we also have a deeply felt need for community and relationships. In a bizarre parallel, Web 2.0 offers these diametrically opposed notions of community as well, just in a more non-traditional sense.

    While I do see the potential of YouTube and others to drastically change one’s life through newfound communities and relationships, I also find it very hard to believe that these interactions will replace real flesh and blood encounters. Wesch speaks about people being moved by their connection through YouTube in ways they wouldn’t normally be in real life. I find this to be a little hyperbolic. People can reveal certain things on camera that they normally wouldn’t, but that still doesn’t replace real, emotional connectivity and conversation. In fact, with so much anonymity and false identities that are prevalent (i.e. LonelyGirl15), any supposed connections that one makes could end up being based on lies. Although he speaks highly of the lack of inhibition and discretion that people use on the internet, the examples of the YouTube comments cause me to fear that we are trading in our civility in order to be more “open”. YouTube commenters have seriously caused the national discourse to take a few steps back, I’m afraid. Until people learn to control themselves and reduce their narcissistic tendencies, technological breakthroughs such as this will never be able to replace real life.

    And Leigh, I think you might be mistaken. I think this is actually the stupidest thing ever recorded: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqT4VnnEU0M

  8. 8 Cassandra H November 17, 2009 at 12:08 am

    As much as I love journalism and YouTube—I do not want the two mixing. I feel that all three of these videos were great examples of what youtube has done for the society at large (with connectedness etc) but I see far more problems for journalism than I see for its anthropological greatness.

    Wesch’s video as he is talking about youtube’s allowing anyone with a web cams to become part of the process and “giving people new forms of empowerment and stronger connections.” There are people that become “youtube stars,” that have these viral videos that make them celebrities. Others on youtube use it for a medium to talk about their opinions on issues that are happening, ex: Chris Brown/Rhianna scandal.

    Although these are two ways that is part of the appeal of youtube, you have people taking ideas from each other and the mass media and digesting it into your own video for the rest of the world to see—but what would those same things do for news organizations? For example, Wesch’s video discussed the issues of context being collapsed. As a viewer, you do not know how your material that you are putting into these videos are going to be used or how people will interpret what they see.

    Another reason why I think that youtube would not be the best thing for not only journalism sectors but political standpoints is that everyone is constantly watching. When we have technologies that can stream anything we are doing from the palm of our hand—it promotes transparency but also it can promote suspicion. People are just going to be waiting for the next best thing to go viral without necessarily checking the facts (e.g. balloon boy hoax).

    If we were to incorporate these kinds of video responses from youtubers to journalism organizations, how do we address what we found? Wesch was constantly referring to people from youtube by their user names. Although it seems to be transparent because if we see it with our own eyes than we believe it (youtube drama) it can be just as easily deceptive as other forms of media. Although I feel like youtube can definitely be a useful tool, I feel that all of these reasons, it is not at the point where we can make it more than it needs to be and what McAdams feels will “save journalism.” It is not at that point, and I really don’t know if it will ever really get there.

  9. 9 Austin Ries November 17, 2009 at 1:34 am

    I think what all of these videos showed, especially the anthropological video of youtube, is that there is no longer one set way of doing things and furthermore, how much new technology affects how we learn and look at life. I think one of the biggest things from the first video was the idea that simply posting a video on youtube does not mean that you are reaching your full audience potential. In fact, you have only started to network. It is the way that all these places work together like Digg and Facebook and other Web 2.0 platforms that truly makes this generation of face-paced information amazing.

    Youtube also proves that like many things in America, the most ridiculous people and phenoms generate an enormous amount of attention for simple and often ridiculous content. For example, the first video of the guy ridiculously singing and dancing spread like wildfire throughout the Internet and it didn’t cost him a thing. Also with the Soulja Boy dance and other musical acts, youtube has become the new radio hit because of the small barriers to entry.

    I do have a problem with bringing youtube and journalism together because of how much content is actually circulating. How can we sort through videos of real, fact-finding truth and every other person with a web cam talking to whoever will listen? It is once again an outlet for citizen journalism but I still feel that if journalists start to spend valuable time on these outlets, the reporting will suffer. And no disrespect to guys like Jay Rosen and all the others that tweet non-stop throughout the day about the future of news and what should be done, but is it really worth it? Is anything changing or are we just talking around the subject without making a difference?

  10. 10 Adam Aldrete November 17, 2009 at 3:25 am

    “A vision of students today” was dripping with political and cultural satire so much so that I couldn’t help but think about James Avery in the Kaplan Commercial. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e50YBu14j3U). While I agree that the education system should incorporate technology, perhaps in the form of e-books and heightened social media presence, the video seems to be a bit over dramatic when it discusses hours in the day. However, the point about global problems being the problems this generation has to face is spot on. Fostering discussions and solutions to poverty and war across the globe is very important. Students who are passionate enough could become involved in the Peace Corps or start and NGO.

    The long video, an anthropological introduction to YouTube,
    was very well done. The references to numa numa, charlie, and souja boi (I think that’s the spelling) were reminders of just how fast new topics can enter the stream of public consciousness. The statistic that 15% of videos are remixes and remakes was not to surprising, although its existence speaks to the demand created by “good” product.

    I disagree with the concept that we more fully experience humanity through a screen, where we can stare, rather then in person. Aren’t anxiety and fear a part of the human condition? I do understand that perhaps people are less filtered when anonymous, but is this actually a good thing? Often times, folks are just acting out to receive attention. This, I believe, is one of the primary reasons good discussions can occur online.

    Now to the question, how should journalism and youtube coexist? Like with Twitter and Facebook, the news industry will have to experience a period of trail and error. That said, media outlets should encourage reporters to upload clips to youtube and media-websites. Perhaps they can provide content with a clear picture that people would then flock to. It should be noted that youtube is NOT the savior for journalism. Journalists should use new media, but also need to forge new relationships with consumers as well as localize their coverage. In doing so, they can create niche markets for news and hopefully create sustainable business models even as citizen journalism rises.

    Overall, I enjoyed the videos, they raise some thought-provoking issues that I’m excited to discuss in the morning. Until then, goodnight all!

  11. 11 Samantha Borger November 17, 2009 at 6:32 am

    It’s easy to view YouTube as just another way to waste time on the Internet. However, Professor Wesch shows us through case studies that its invention has brought about various cultural phenomena.

    I specifically remember my cousin linking a video featuring herself on YouTube during the site’s first few months. I was in total awe. At that point, the only way to get a video of yourself on the Internet seemed to be if you were an entertainer, or a successful journalist. She was neither. Just a teenager, only a year older than me, and her video was just of her and some friends acting out a scene that only they really found to be funny. It was rare in those days to post video on one’s own. In my eyes, she was famous, because anyone could see this video and comment on it, maybe even link to it.

    Today, I would say it’s rare to find someone who does not have a video of themselves in some fashion available on YouTube. Without the technology provided by this site, it’s hard to know what digital video might be like today.

    Besides the awe of seeing oneself on screen, the community and relationships built through YouTube seem like side effects that would have been nearly impossible to predict. Yet, the responses coming from everyday people were immeasurable in the amount of basic information provided about the typical human life. Look no further to figure out what the 18-35 demographic really thinks about a subject, even if it’s through reading the sometimes obscene comments posted on popular videos.

    The lines between journalism and entertainment can be easily blurred with the ease of uploading content to YouTube. However, journalists have a lot to learn from this site—not only from learning how to upload content, but also about how communities use it and how to gain information from the content uploaded by normal people, everyday. Yes, with its ease of use comes thousands of “useless” videos, but at the same time YouTube has created a venue to host real-life encounters for all to see, and to be archived so that historians may always remember what humans really thought about subjects of these times.

  12. 12 msherfield November 17, 2009 at 7:27 am

    The funny thing is that for a talk about YouTube, there wasn’t that much discussion about video. Before watching this, I had never given too much thought to the community behind YouTube and the impact that seems to have. Maybe it is more than just a dog skate boarding or Star Wars kid.
    Obviously, this goes back to what Mindy McAdams said about community, identity and self-expression. As Wesch says, there is a lot more to YouTube then Numa Numa. There is an entire community and an entire new way to think about self (identity) when you see the world through a web cam and it sees you right back.
    I’m not sure what it means for journalists. If something like 40% of videos are only meant for 100 people or less, as Wesch says, does that mean the entire idea of mass media is doomed?
    Looking around the press box during a football game, I can see every reporter Twittering away and uploading their Facebook. Most now do some form of video. Does that really mean anything though? Does establishing a superficial connection, borne through necessity rather than desire make one a better reporter?
    I understand the allure of social media for a news organization, but I don’t really see the current system adding anything to journalism, other than another job an underpaid reporter has to perform.
    As McAdams says, it is about community and sharing, communication and self-expression. It’s not really about video, it’s not really about 140 characters or less. I think news organizations are mistaking the medium for the message. YouTube and co. aren’t revolutionary because they use video, they are revolutionary because they allow people to connect with other people “without constraint.”
    Basically, I don’t think a news organization will ever really use social media or user-generated content as well as the users themselves, because they are the “emoboy” and “lonleygirl”, fakes on the outside looking in. They’re not posting to be part of the community or part of the conversation, they’re doing it for money, and people can see through that.

  13. 13 Erin Harris November 17, 2009 at 7:50 am

    A great trip down memory lane… Miyahi and Soldier Boy!

    A whole YouTube community that I have not exposed myself to… What an interesting class assignment… Create a series of vlogs, each a minimum of 5 minutes. A part of me is relieved this is not on the syllabus because looking to a camera and talking to myself and unknown viewers feels somewhat daunting. I’m sure I’d review and re-do mine a few times before I had to publish it!

    The public/private dichotomy of the web camera fascinates me. All of a sudden, your own bedroom (or even closet) potentially becomes the most public place. Vlogs generally take place in a room where social norms do not matter yet these videos are distributed to a community of socially-savvy people. The neat thing about this community is doesn’t seem to judge by conventionally social norms, and it allows vloggers to act more freely and openly.

    It does not surprise me that over 50% of YouTube videos feature people 18-24 years old because this age of people is more comfortable being themselves than those younger, and this generation defines privacy very differently from their parents.

  14. 14 brandonfried November 17, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    I really liked the way Wesch started his presentation with the contrasting numbers between mass media broadcasting and YouTube viewership – and how YouTube has no producers and no real moderators of its content.

    Video storytelling has always been inspiring, as noted by McAdams, and the consistent low barrier to entry presented by platforms like YouTube will only increase the community’s size exponentially.

    The numbers don’t like, like he said, and the sense by which we form communities online isn’t likely to change anytime soon either. What I thought was really interesting was how important the idea of anonymity was to the spread of YouTube and its popularity.

    I think what is really fascinating though is how seriously people take the YouTube community that they have created for themselves. Look at how offended YouTube participants were when they discovered that they had been ‘duped’ by lonelygirl or emoboy.

    And what makes this idea relevant to journalism is how crucial it is that we, as journalists, understand how the viewers (I wish I could underline this part) crave their content. We have to understand that consumers of any sort online will go after the things they want and it is up to us to provide the information they want no matter how tiny the audience might be.

    People take their own content extremely seriously and when news becomes crowdsourced and produced more and more by the citizenry, we have to remember how personalized the news has become. Everyone has a stake in it now and we can’t ignore that news consumers are more able than ever before to voice their opinions – and THEY DO! Look at comment threads, YouTube video responses, etc. Everyone collectively “owns” the news now and when something is wrong or offensive or misrepresented, our viewers (and not our editors) will be the first to remind us.

    [On another note, I first thought it was pretty ironic that Wesch uses the platform he studies regularly to share his research and ideas but then I realized it wasn’t that funny at all. Wish I could have worked that into my response better.]

  15. 15 James December 1, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    I found Wesch’s presentation fascinating, and not only for his comments on YouTube, but also because I think he is hitting on the enormous level to which digital media is changing the way people interact. He demonstrated this one way by stating that people are not only organizing information, but they are also distributing it and giving it credibility based on views.

    This new form of distribution means a lot for traditional news organizations attempting to gain broad readership. In the past it has always been the front page of the newspaper that dictates what it the most important topic of the day. However with digital forms of news and information, the most important topic depends on who is reading, and the most popular topic now goes to the one that is the most distributed.

    I found the first-take YouTube videos really funny and very easy to relate to. In professor Zuniga’s class this semester we had to do a podcast project and I suffered many of the same mistakes that the people in the video did. It is a strange feeling producing yourself and trying to speak into a microphone but also speak to the World Wide Web at the same time. These forms of communication and the growing amount of weak ties via the internet among individuals are surely going alter culture globally in a way that is still unknown.


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