can haz viral video?

The other day I had the pleasure of participating in this week’s episode of Spark, a CBC Radio One show on tech culture news and ideas. It was a lot of fun being part of such a smart show – yay, public service broadcasting, long may it reign.
The full show and related info, links etc is now available at the Spark website.

I was there to provide some comments from a cultural research point of view on Dan Ackerman Greenberg’s now-notorious ‘secret strategies’ for manufacturing ‘virality’. My main point really was that I didn’t think you could use the virus metaphor to simply describe a piece of content becoming very popular through word-of-mouth or peer-to-peer distribution. However I do think it is tremendously interesting to think about the ways in which ideas, recipes, and practices become available for re-use via mass replication and variation; to try to understand what these little units of knowledge actually are, and how it all works.

It’s the difference between talking about the Crank That music video ‘going viral’, and the Crank That dance steps.

Actually, moving away from video and to mix the metaphors, it is so-called ‘internet memes’ like the lolcats that are the best examples.

With those, you have a form, a set of essential elements, and a set of constantly evolving ‘rules’ for practice, producing apparently infinite lol-possibilities. These ‘rules’ are like cultural building blocks that can be re-used, remixed, and re-combined to produce new ideas, always hybrid, always – in a particular sense of the word – creative. This is far more interesting to me than the banal quest to get more eyeballs onto your piece of ‘content’.

The catch is, it seems to be almost entirely unpredictable which of these ideas will be repeated and built on to the extent that they go truly ‘viral’.

Do you doubt me?

Oh, and by the way, Joshua Green and I are very busily writing a book about YouTube that draws on our collaborative research project. It will be out on Polity Press later this year, and, to misappropriate physics instead of biology, it will hopefully provide some useful angles to think through the politics of participatory culture, using YouTube as a lens through which to refract the competing dynamics of user-created content, expertise and agency. That’s keeping me quiet and away from the blog a bit, but I’ll be posting updates (and attempting to generate enough hype to make the book go ‘viral’) later on.

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.

further to the myspace/facebook class debate

further to the myspace/facebook class debate

Ah, the La Boite Theatre (which by the way has a kind of populist/grass-roots brand image but is situated in the hyper-modernist, rational and shiny Creative Industries Precinct here at QUT). Perhaps we should applaud them for doing their bit to keep MySpace bourgeios.

But then again, first an iPod on the cover of their 2007 season brochure, and now this – which may create some tensions, because are they really like a Mac (seamlessly, transparently usable, white, and fun, but with “no user-seviceable parts inside”)? or are they more like a home-built PC (ubiquitous, kludgy, hackable, and dripping with DIY authenticity)? Of course my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, because I think to the La Boite folks, as for most people, the ipod and myspace signify roughly the same thing – something like “the digital generation”. And to most people, the differences between MySpace and Facebook are about as big as the differences between, say, emo and goth to my grandma.

Quite seriously, I am very glad to see discussions of the ways in which cultural “tastes”, and constructions of what counts as usability (which has serious implications for what counts as literacy), being discussed in relation to social networks.

If you haven’t already, see danah boyd’s piece and the AoIR and iDC lists for the actual discussion about Facebook, MySpace, and class (in the Bourdieu-ian sense).

And I was especially impressed with this post to the AoIR list by (soon-to-be colleague) Jason Wilson:

One of the central arguments in the work is that “taste” and cultural preferences mediate class distinctions, that taste is one of the primary ways in which class distance and membership are asserted. This informs my belief that design, “usability” and the contexts of social networking are never neutral, and are always inflected by issues around class (among others). I guess that for me, the problematic assumption would be that social networking, and the selection of an SNS, could take place in a way that somehow evaded, or was innocent of all of this.

Why would I think of this specifically in relation to MySpace vs. Facebook? Well, to amplify on an earlier example, I think that the ways in which the two services can be personalised appeal to different taste formations. The often-“gaudy” nature of MySpace personalisation, arising from users’ ability to insert large amounts of HTML into their profiles to create background images etc. presents a contrast with the essentially “modular” personalisation available with Facebook profiles, where users select from a range of options which do not disturb the given, “clean” colour schemes and layouts of Facebook profiles. The Facebook interface strikes me as very “designerly” – it is reminiscent to me in its look and feel of an OSX application, with all that connotes in terms of “funky”/creative professions, the blurring of work and/in play, and discernment (think of the Mac vs. PC ad campaigns). The use of whitespace, drop-down menus and a very “Web 2.0” set of icons allow it to be read as uncluttered, fresh and efficient. Personalisation for many Facebook users takes place by way of deferring to the expert knowledges of application designers. By contrast, MySpace personalisations often seem inexpert, distracting, ungainly – in short amateur, even where the “pimping” is outsourced. Coincidentally, both Danah Boyd and I (me in my blog post on the 22nd) are drawn to the metaphor of/comparison with Swedish furniture stores and their emphasis on modularity and design in thinking about Facebook. There are visual rhetorics in Facebook’s presentation that connote a restrained minimalism which is not avant-garde but rational and “tasteful”. This observation chimes with the excitement of those marketing high-end consumer goods about getting access Facebook’s “elite” user base. Facebook’s aesthetic of personalisation appeals to a certain kind of networked, linked-in, design-aware, educated, “mature” (non-emo ๐Ÿ™‚ ) subject, in part because of the “distancing” it offers from messy old MySpace, which begins, by contrast, to resemble the chaos of a teenager’s bedroom wall. In this sense, I think we can talk about class in relation to the design interface.

There’s also an earlier blog post by Jason where he quite provocatively talks about the migration to Facebook as a kind of aspirational, rather than defensive, “white flight”.

If I could throw something else into the mix, all of this discussion about the link between aesthetic norms, constructions of usability (and ‘hackability’), and so on brings to mind the differences between Flickr and YouTube. Apples and oranges, certainly, but perhaps no more so than the MySpace/Facebook comparison. Like Facebook, Flickr’s interface is white, “usable” and vaguely mac-like, and like Facebook, its norms of participation, design and community behaviour were established by a fairly elite subculture early on, but unlike Facebook, Flickr has held onto a reasonably coherent demographic and a reasonably stable “culture”, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, like MySpace, YouTube looks like a chaotic, “tasteless” free-for-all to an eye schooled in middle-class mores and tastes, not to mention the dominant construction of usability that structures the discourses of the “digerati“. But it is also genuinely popular in all senses of that rich and problematic term, and is emerging as a genuine “mass” medium where vernacular creativity and “big media” swim around in the same mix. What’s in YouTube’s immediate and distant future as far as that all goes is another matter entirely.

I wrote about this (sort of) in my AoIR paper on Flickr last year. There’s a lot more of it in my thesis, organised around the dynamics of “usability”, “hackability” and “playability”. I’ll post a copy of that online eventually, but email me if you’re keen to see it earlier.

Community responses to changes at YouTube

In my last post, I discussed YouTube’s roll-out of language options and localization, and aired some concerns I have about its cultural implications.

This morning I had a quick look to see how the YouTube community has responded to the move. I’m a bit surprised there isn’t more discussion, celebration, or protest than there is, actually. Especially compared with how intensely the Flickr community debates and discusses even the finest points of changes that are implemented at the site – which speaks to the quite distinctive ‘cultures’ emerging in each of these social networks.

In fact, at YouTube there is just as much protest over another major change that came with the recent redesign: the disappearance of YouTube’s content categories as a browsing option from the front page. And apparently, in typical YouTube fashion, this was done in the “middle of the night”, without forewarning or consultation. CapnOAwesome, for example, seems most concerned about how anyone will find stumble across quality content from the long tail without the invitation to browse categories:

I haven’t found anything like the same amount of discussion of the language and localization issue. But I found a few interesting things.

The dominant line of complaint could be summed up as, “Dude, where’s my country????” – involving mainly people from English-speaking countries who not only resent having to be lumped in with either the US or the UK (which was my first reaction too), but also feel moved to demand a version of YouTube localised for their own countries. Namely, Australia and Canada. See this one and this one:

[link]

These simplistic posts are drawing interesting comments, though:

If they wanted YT to truly be a global experience, they would have just added a language feature so you don’t just have to understand english to fully enjoy it.

That’s what I reckon too. But Ars Technica explains the probable motivation behind this whole thing:

localized versions of the main site might split up the otherwise unified community of YouTube, but will also help the company strike deals with smaller, local content providers and offer more targeted videos to its users.

Even the YouTube blog entry appears to me to be quite confused about the difference “countries” and “languages”.

Meanwhile, BadAlbert (from the UK) is not happy about the “splitting up of the YouTube empire” into “provinces”, and wants to know what the (f**king) point is anyway, if YouTube is not a “global medium”:

US resident Elaina43 obects to the ubiquitous “little flags” at the top of the page, and says she “doesn’t want to be reminded” constantly that she’s in the US, and that furthermore, the presence of the flag makes her feel as though she’s being commanded, “be patriotic! be patriotic! be patriotic!”:

I would love some help with this little investigation: ironically, the only language I speak well enough to understand what people are saying in their vlog posts is English – so I’d love to hear from any Dutch, French, Spanish, Brazilian/Portugese, Polish or Japanese-speaking readers out there who might have come across different points of view. And does anyone have an inside track on what might be going on with Germany or China?

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Localisation, YouTube and Flickr

Via BigMouth Media – well, actually via late-night YouTube browsing, followed by the now-familiar exclamation “Oh, look, YouTube’s changed something (in the middle of the night) again!”:

YouTube has released localised versions of its video sharing website in nine countries around the world. The countries that are getting the special treatment are Brazil, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK.

The sites are fully translated into the home country’s major language and offer content more specific to the user’s locale. The specific sites also return search results that are deemed more relevant to the user based on where they are in the world. According to YouTube’s official blog, users will also be able to look forward to country-specific video rankings and comments in the future.

I only noticed because the top right-hand corner of my YouTube page appeared to have suddenly sprouted a little US flag. Naturally my first instinct was to race with all possible speed for the drop-down box to get rid of it and replace it with something else. Because the US flag as the symbol for “I speak English” is one of my pet peeves. Of course, unless I want to finally get around to learning French, Polish or Japanese, my only other option for now is to pretend to be British.

More seriously, I’m ecstatic there are non-English language options, but concerned about what the impacts of Google-style ‘localisation’ of search results might be on the development of an open, cosmopolitan and networked public sphere.

First, it’s entirely possible that too much personalisation and customisation and localisation is actually a bad thing for the development of cosmopolitan cultural citizenship and for cultural innovation. Culturally-relevant content for citizens of countries outside the US is one thing. But to look at it the other way round, the last thing anyone should want is for US-centric content to dominate the YouTube experience of US residents even more than is the case already. We’ll see how it plays out, I suppose.

Second, YouTube’s twitchy behaviour and tenuous relationships with local governments has a slighly chilling effect on the warm, neighbourly glow that ‘localisation’ is meant to provoke.

From Wired-in Terrence Russell:

Even with the new sites, international users will still have access to the original site, as well as all the others. “It is not that we want to limit content by geography,” YouTube’s International Manager, Sakina Arsiwala told Reuters. “Right now, the content will be available to everyone, unless the (media) partner specifies otherwise.”

Well, maybe.

Which brings to mind the tangles and heartache caused by the localisation of Yahoo! and the subsequent filtering of Flickr content viewed from Germany, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. The policies are being almost hysterically condemned as ‘censorship’ by some Flickr users. Interestingly, most of the protest seems to be focused around the impacts on German users. I haven’t been as immersed in the issue as I would have been a few months back, but it doesn’t take long to see it’s clearly a complicated and fraught issue. And it’s not going to go away. I wonder how a YouTube localised for Germany will look?

[update] From the horse’s mouth via the YouTube blog:

As these sites evolve, so will your localized YouTube experience, including country-specific video rankings, comments and browse pages รขโ‚ฌโ€œ all while being just one click away from the worldwide view.

[…]

We’re extremely excited to be offering YouTube in the languages of so many of our users, since it allows people to express themselves and unite around interesting, relevant videos. We’re looking forward to seeing communities develop between people in their local communities as well as among people around the world. We can’t wait to experience more original content and interesting genres of content in different languages on the site.

Clearly, the language options are a very good thing. But I still don’t see why country-specific content is any more an aid to the development of communities of interest than are keywords, groups and so on. An aid to targeted advertising and content filtering though, certainly.

YouTube Research Gazette

Many thanks to all the people who responded via email to my request for information about current YouTube research projects relevant to content and genre analysis. I still have a few more leads to chase up, but vaguely in the spirit of FLOSS (where the second “S” is for scholarship, not software), I thought I’d share a summary of the results so far. I hope none of the respondents minds – please let me know if you do and I’ll do a swift edit.

Just bear in mind this isn’t an exhaustive list – you’ll have to do your own strenuous legwork at Google and/or Google Scholar for that…

At the Infoscape Research Lab there is some serious data crunching going on behind the scenes, including some work on categorising content. There are already some preliminary reports on how the federal political parties in Canada and their supporters have been using YouTube for campaigning up on the website.

USC Annenberg Center Postdoctoral Fellow Patricia Lange has done a hefty amount of ethnographic work on YouTube, looking at issues such as “YouTube community, participation, and different responses to haters, especially in specific genres such as video blogging and youth production videos”. She has a conference paper on users’ understandings and responses to YouTube haters here (pdf).

There are quite a few theses in the works as well: Trine Bjorkmann Berry (University of Sussex) is some way through a doctoral thesis on vlogging, using an ethnographic approach informed by cultural and critical theory; Janice Leung (York University, Canada) is completing an MA thesis on YouTube and music fandom, specifically fan-produced concert videos and the performance of cultural capital; Jeff Scheible (UCSB) is beginning a project on Hurricane Katrina footage at YouTube; Dominic Yeo (social psychology, Cambridge) is doing a PhD on the psychological dimensions involved in user-generated videos in Web 2.0 environments.

At just about the same time as my request went out, Flow published a couple of articles about YouTube – one by Chuck Tyron on YouTube and Anti-War Street Theater and one by Alex Munt on the implications for Hollywood of YouTube’s “clip culture” and associated narrative model. Also published at Flow recently: Hector Amaya’s provocative piece on the ‘docublogging’ via YouTube of detention centres – Hutto’s Children: Maddening Structures of Absence.

And finally, a little bird tells me it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the Pew Internet & American Life Project for a report on online video over the next few weeks.

I know there must be more, or will be very soon, so feel free to let me know what I’m missing.

Speaking of YouTube, I have added a new entry about older people’s use of ‘playful technologies’ and informal learning over at Propagating Media.

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Help: Who is researching YouTube?

One of my current research projects is a collaboration with Joshua Green from the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. We’re designing a large-scale content analysis of YouTube, with the rather ambitious long-term aim of mapping the emergent genre system of the network.

Part of the planning involves figuring out whether or not our intended project legitimately fills a gap in knowledge, and how we might build on, learn from, or at least acknowledge what’s already being done. Unsurprisingly, there has been very little published research on YouTube to date, but as I know from doing some work on Flickr, there’s bound to be a lot of research underway.

So, if you or anyone you know is doing any research on YouTube that might be related or relevant and you don’t mind swapping some info, we’d love to hear from you! If you have any leads, please leave a comment here, or if you’d prefer, email me directly.

i’ve always said that old people rock

I know I’ve come to it a bit late, but I’ve just spent several minutes watching the Zimmers’ video over and over again, and smiling all the way.

At one level, I like it because it is a much-needed demonstration of one way in which we might think about how to connect “expertise” with “amateur” participation so that it is ethical, non-exploitative and (if you look at the comments) genuinely popular.
Plus, as many of you know, I’m not all that keen on the young folk today–so watching this was even more fun than seeing Paris Hilton get jailtime.

a spot of vernacular creativity on the street

Given that busking paid my rent over several summers back in the day, I have a special place in my heart for buskers, and street drummers are super cool. I captured this video (on my phone, sorry!) while out strolling around sunny Boston with all the other tourists this afternoon. Enjoy. Here’s a direct link in case the embed doesn’t work in your feed reader.

If you want to try this at home, all you really need is a couple of sticks, some old paint cans, good coordination, a killer sense of rhythm, and years and years and years of practice.

Here’s a video of a different Boston street drummer with a much more esoteric style. Hope he’s still around!

There are heaps of other great busking videos on YouTube, too.