Analyzing the Societal Effects of YouTube

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The domain name YouTube first was activated in February 2005. By February 2008, the site was grabbing one-third of the estimated 10 billion views of online videos that month, up from 15 percent in 2007, according to Internet marketing research company comScore.

Ten billion views a month is a number that speaks for itself: Online video is an explosive new medium, and YouTube has proven to be dominant in this arena. And while for some the site provides mere entertainment, for others, YouTube is proving to be a valuable research tool, as well as a medium for expression or documentation of aberrant behavior.

YouTube is everywhere. But what is it doing to us?The challenge in analyzing YouTube as a medium is that its meteoric rise makes it difficult to get a handle on its place in society. “Even though it’s an unavoidable force, the truth is we don’t yet know what kind of unavoidable force it is,” said Andrew Perrin, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I like to think about new media that arrive on the scene in a number of dimensions, and one of them is the interactivity of it — — the extent to which a viewer or consumer is able to direct the content,” he said. “As a medium, YouTube has a certain pack mentality to it because there are only so many decision rules you can use to find stuff to watch on YouTube, and so whatever someone else has watched turns out to be what you’re likely to watch.”

In many cases, people use YouTube casually: Someone e-mails or somehow exposes them to a link to a video clip and so they watch it. And in many cases this will be content that originated elsewhere. “It’s a pretty derivative medium. What people mostly are watching is video that we know of through some other source, and they use YouTube for its capacity to serve that video, more than to be a medium of its own,” Perrin said.

For this reason, Steve Jones, professor in the Department of Communication and associate dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, feels it’s too soon to know what place YouTube holds in our society. “It’s certainly not replacing TV. At this point, it’s sitting alongside other video media,” Jones said.

“It’s probably safe to say that, over time, as this generation of high school and college students gets older, they will be quite open to getting what we would consider television content via YouTube, and they would probably be comfortable getting other kinds of content via YouTube. So in that respect, I think YouTube has begun the process of moving video to IP-based distribution, independent of traditional or cable networks.”

Going beyond this migration, however, what YouTube does that video media before it have not done is provide ordinary users a way to expose their content to millions of eyeballs immediately. In the past, people without access to a television network may have been able to record video content and distribute it via tape or DVD, or with some effort get themselves cable access. But these methods lack the widespread, immediate accessibility of YouTube and other online video sites.

Violence on YouTube

Almost since its inception, people have used YouTube to post videos of violent acts. By fall 2006, this had become so widespread that politicians in the U.K. sought to legislate against violence on YouTube, with the House of Commons citing a video on YouTube of a man being kicked in the face until he lost consciousness. U.K. ministers claimed such videos “fuel random acts of violence.”

In the three years it’s existed, news stories of people committing acts of violence and posting them to YouTube have become recurrent, but one recent case sheds particular light on the issue. In April, six teenage girls in Florida were accused of beating a 16-year-old girl and recording the attack with the intention of posting it on YouTube.

They were apprehended before they were able to post the video, but a portion of the recording eventually was released to the media by police, and it ended up on YouTube anyway. (Evidence of the pervasive nature of YouTube: The site now contains the original clip alongside video of the perpetrators appearing in court, the victim’s parents speaking to the news media, various television clips covering the case, dozens of videos uploaded by users commenting on the story and even an amateurishly animated re-enactment of the attack).

This story prompted a range of responses in various news media, with some commentators attempting to pin at least some of the blame for the incident on YouTube itself, and others quick to insist that was preposterous. One could argue YouTube merely reflected violence here, but the camera’s presence during the assault and the intended destination of the footage being YouTube begs the question of whether the site served as a catalyst to violence in this instance.

“I would be cautious about attributing causality to YouTube,” Perrin said. “There are a heck of a lot more people on YouTube than are going out and committing acts of violence in order to get onto YouTube, and so to understand that as a directly causal factor is a little bit of a stretch.”

Jane Brown, professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agreed. “I wouldn’t say it’s a catalyst [to violence],” she said. “It gave the girls a way to promote themselves that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. A lot of media glorifies violence, and there’s so much interest in celebrities these days that it seems a logical extension that adolescents would think, ‘Hmm, if I’m in a video and I get lots of exposure, I too may get some kind of notoriety.’”

Divorce on YouTube

Another recent, high-profile news story with YouTube at its center is that of Tricia Walsh-Smith, a former actress and playwright in New York City in the midst of a divorce battle with her husband, Philip Smith, president of The Shubert Organization, the largest theater owner on Broadway. In an attempt to gain the upper hand, Walsh-Smith took to YouTube to expose details of her marriage and its subsequent, apparently acrimonious split.

The clip begins with Walsh-Smith in her kitchen discussing particulars of her prenuptial agreement and why she may or may not be getting evicted from her Park Avenue apartment, calling herself an idiot and giving herself a tarot-card reading before declaring, “I’m fighting back, and I’m going to do this video and I’ll put it up on YouTube.” She then makes embarrassing claims regarding the couple’s sex life and later goes through their wedding album on camera, describing family members as “bad” or “evil.”

In this instance, YouTube presented a scorned woman with a unique opportunity in the history of social media: an accessible way to instantly smear another party.

“What’s interesting to me is that she would have done this via YouTube rather than her own Web site,” Jones said. “YouTube has made it so easy to post these kinds of things that why would you go to the lengths of putting [up] your own Web site when you can easily upload it to YouTube?”

Perrin said he couldn’t think of any other medium throughout history that would have been so immediate in its effect. “The self-production aspect of YouTube, combined with its broadcast reach, that is a unique form,” he said. “I’m sure there are lots of estranged spouses throughout history who would like the opportunity to have done that. YouTube provides us a space in which people can post stuff without the gatekeepers that have been associated with previous high-bandwidth media.”

In debating the level of causality one can attribute to YouTube, Perrin draws a comparison with what was once a newly emergent communication tool: the telephone. “If you go back and look at some of the really fine social history of what people were worried about in terms of the advent of the telephone, we hear a lot of the same stuff,” he said. The fear was that people would be “driven to do crazy and racy things because they’re allowed and able now to tell people about it quickly through the telephone.”

Walsh-Smith’s clip, meanwhile, provides an interesting study on the difference between using the telephone to smear someone and using online video to do so. In the video, she actually calls her husband, reaching him very briefly before being thrown to his secretary, telling her, “I’m filming at the moment; we’re doing a little video for YouTube.” She then repeats her humiliating claims about their sex life. Walsh-Smith’s husband’s secretary is decidedly nonplussed.

Whereas in the past the prank call itself would have been humiliation enough, now the main act is the video documentation of that call and the decision to broadcast it around the world.

A decision, Brown pointed out, that may have been made hastily and then magnified by the site. “The woman who damns her husband by saying everything she wants to say in public may regret that a couple of weeks later,” she said. “It may be too immediate, not allowing for much thought.”

Politics on YouTube

George W. Bush began his second term as president of the United States the month before YouTube’s inception. So the 2008 presidential campaign has been the first to feel the impact of the site. The campaign has seen televised debates in which citizens questioned candidates via YouTube clips. But more significantly, the analytical dialogue surrounding the campaign has identified a clear shift in presidential politics in what’s being called the “YouTube era.”

What this means is that every second a candidate is in the public eye likely will be recorded, either professionally or amateurishly (perhaps with a camera phone), and sliced up for quick analysis by reporters and political bloggers. John McCain’s statement that he’d be comfortable with the United States military remaining in Iraq for 100 years was recorded by a private citizen attending a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire and was first aired publicly on YouTube. The sound bite is now part of a television ad produced by the Democratic National Committee.

YouTube also affects the political process in ways that go beyond current gaffs or flubs. It provides reporters, political bloggers and, perhaps more importantly, political operatives with unfettered access to all of a candidate’s past statements on political positions, some of which may not agree with a candidate’s current ones.

Mitt Romney was stung by this in the current presidential race when the McCain campaign dug up a YouTube video in which the former Massachusetts governor stated he supported maintaining abortion rights in his state. Romney claims he changed his position on abortion to being pro-life following a November 2004 conversation with a stem cell researcher that he found unsettling. But the clip dated to May 2005, six months after this conversation. The video created doubt regarding Romney’s stance.

So the question is, does YouTube, in its ability to document and broadcast everything a candidates says, make the political process so transparent as to shift it in new directions?

“It changes the landscape dramatically,” Perrin said. “It’s partly about transparency, but also about further increasing the sound-bite-ness of the political landscape. This strikes me as a bad thing for politics. [Candidates now] have to be very careful about not just their whole message, but about each little piece of the message, which is why so many presidential speeches and campaign speeches are so deadly boring and repetitive.”

Jones agreed. “One of the possible long-term effects is that it’s going to cause politicians to even more greatly circumscribe their speech,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a good thing. I’d prefer that our politicians felt that they could speak freely, and then we could judge what they say.”

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Daniel Margolis


Daniel Margolis is a longtime professional writer and editor. Daniel was managing editor of Certification Magazine from 2006 to 2012.

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