Oprah, YouTube, and the YouTubers

[cross-posted at Propagating Media]

So, Oprah has her own YouTube channel. I was very interested to see how the user community would respond to Oprah’s debut on the site, given the stirrings of discontent I’d been detecting recently around a perceived ‘dumbing down’, sensationalising or mainstreaming of the content that makes it to the top of the YouTube rankings lately.

There’s a good roundup of the discussion on the excellent blog YouTube Stars, including a whole bunch of videos responding to this development:

The YouTube community has reacted with ambivalence to Oprah’s new channel. Some think it will bring new viewers for everyone’s videos. But others object to Oprah’s apparent “one-way conversation” – she seems to want to advertise to us without accepting feedback. It has also been lamented that the “golden age” of YouTube is over. With the corporate accounts racking up lots of viewers, its hard to get on the most discussed or most viewed lists without resorting to histrionics and sensationalism. YouTube seemed more like a community of videomakers before “partners” came on to advertise to us. But, all this was inevitable. YouTube was spending millions on the computer power and bandwidth necessary to provide this free service to the uploaders and viewers of the thousands of new videos posted weekly on the site.

I’m not sure this trend really is inevitable. When I spoke to the Convergence Culture Consortium partners at MIT earlier in the year, I tried to argue that it would be a mistake to think of user-created content as a placeholder for ‘real’ (quality, industry-produced) content. I argued that we now have sufficient evidence to say that ‘ordinary’ people are interested in each others’ content, and that it is the social practices around content creation, and not just the ‘content’ itself, that actually cause the platforms designed around user-created content to grow in a sustainable way. It is the collective activities of those users who are engaged in both creative practice and social interaction, wherever they are along the ‘continuum of participation’, that produces the value of each network, and that is what in turn creates loyalty.

At the time, I argued that Flickr was a model of best practice in this regard – cultivating loyalty among its users, deliberately instilling (and if necessary enforcing) social and creative norms designed to maintain the integrity of the community even as it scaled, preserving and respecting the rights of its users, and being selective about who it partners with. I’m not saying there hasn’t been any trouble in Flickr-land, but I still stand by the ‘best practice’ idea, even if it’s “the best you can do if you’re owned by a big company like Yahoo!”.

Going back to the matter at hand, it doesn’t surprise me that the core participants in the YouTube community – the YouTubers – might see the entrance of the Oprah brand, and the way YouTube has responded to it, as something of a disappointment. As many of the comments by dissenting YouTubers demonstrate, the complaint is not really about sharing the space with the mainstream media, it’s about the way that attempts on the behalf of the mainstream media and YouTube itself to exploit the scale of the network are causing ecological changes to YouTube’s economy of attention, so that it is becoming harder and harder to find quality grassroots or niche content. That’s the perception, anyway – it’s hard to say for certain without doing some tracking over time.

Another point made by several YouTube commenters is that Oprah is importing the celebrity + control mentality of big media into the social media space (e.g. by disallowing or filtering comments) and therefore ignoring the cultural norms that have developed over the life of the network; a situation only exacerbated by YouTube’s practice of featuring and partnering with mainstream media companies and celebrities who haven’t done the ‘hard yards’ in the subculture. See this vlog entry by Hughsnews for an example of this kind of critique:

Star vlogger Renato (aka Paul Robinett) is having none of it, suggesting that the lead users might know better than the company what this thing called YouTube is actually for:

Renato may have a point, despite the whiff of sour grapes in the air, and despite the fact that as a YouTube partner himself he is viewed by some users as a bit of a sell-out.

But then last week I noticed this announcement on the official YouTube blog:

Today marks the first day of a new project aimed at better understanding the needs and wants of our users. The “YouTube Community Council” consists of a handful of volunteers (who will rotate every six months) eager to share their opinions about the site and the community with us on a consistent basis. They’re kicking off their tenure by visiting us in San Bruno over the next few days, giving feedback directly to the team that makes it happen behind the scenes.

There’s also a video that introduces the team and a link to their channels. I’ll be interested to see how this goes – and I’d love to know what other community engagement/management strategies are in place already, because on its own this initiative looks like a case of too little, too late.