June 27, 2008

3 years on, YouTube is the object of serious study

By Cheryl S. Ntumy
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - In August 2007, DeAndre Ramone Way posted a video on YouTube showing people how to dance to his self-published song, “Crank That (Souljah Boy).” Soon thousands of people had posted videos of themselves doing the “Soulja Boy” dance. By September the song had reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Three years after YouTube was launched, its cultural impact was examined in a lecture titled “The Anthropology of YouTube” at the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress Monday. The lecture was the third in the “Digital Natives” series presented at the Library of Congress.

Approximately 10 hours of video are uploaded to the Web site every minute, according to YouTube, creating celebrities virtually overnight. The Free Hugs campaign video, for example, posted in 2006, inspired by a man who walked around the streets offering hugs to strangers, has been viewed almost 28 million times, setting off similar campaigns around the world.

“I think of it as media mediating human relationships,” said Michael Wesch, assistant professor of digital ethnography at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., and the main speaker at the lecture. “When media change, human relationships change.”

Marc Prensky, credited with coining the terms “digital native,” referring to people born into the digital age, and “digital immigrant,” referring to people born before the digital age, also spoke at the lecture. He said in an earlier interview that YouTube allows people to communicate in ways that are “much more concise.”

“Anybody with a webcam now has a stronger voice,” said Wesch, who has seven videos uploaded on his YouTube account, including “A Vision of Students Today,” which he showed at the lecture.

“The day after Barack Obama officially clinched the nomination, I took my camera and went around the streets of London to gage the temperature of Brits,” said Eric J. Kuhn, 21, a rising senior at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., in an e-mail interview. Kuhn just finished his junior year at the London School of Economics. “Within days, thousands had viewed the video.”

Wesch said that Web-sharing sites such as YouTube have created a whole new realm of communication “where it seems as if everybody’s watching, and yet nobody’s there.” This, he said, evokes in the subjects of the videos a “hyper self-awareness.” Because of the anonymity of the observers, people have the freedom to experience humanity in a different way. Wesch said people make deep connections on YouTube that they can’t make in typical relationships “because they’re not allowed to look at people, because they’re not allowed to stare.”

Now YouTube is more than just a place to view the blunders of public figures or the exploits of everyday people. Increasingly, people are using the Web site for research purposes.

Igor Volsky, 22, a research associate for progressive political think tank, Center for American Progress, said in an interview that YouTube has made traditional media more interactive. “It has really, I think, upped the ante,” said Volsky, who watches political videos on the Web site for work.

“We use the tools of our age,” Prensky said, adding that YouTube has become such an important source of information that “you not only have to do your Google search, you also have to do your YouTube search.”

YouTube use isn’t limited to digital natives.

Michal Ann Strahilevitz, associate professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, said in an interview that her students post a lot of their work on the site, and she will begin posting lectures online in the fall. “I teach graduate courses in marketing communications and consumer behavior, and the students walk in motivated and interested in the topic,” she said.

Ed Kent, a chemistry teacher at Seaford High School in Seaford, N.Y., posts videos of science experiments on Metacafe, a site similar to YouTube. He said in an interview that students can do a lot of work, even if they are not in class, thanks to material posted online. “It keeps them interested, and it keeps them focused,” he said.

There is a downside, however. Many people, digital immigrants in particular, are concerned about the quality and veracity of material on Web-sharing sites, as well as content that could be damaging to children.

“YouTube is just a great place to find and post what you do, but in the end, what I teach is how to create cutting-edge work,” Strahilevitz said. “Posting it on YouTube does not make it good or bad - it just makes it accessible to a larger audience.”

Kent said that, while the Internet opens children up to things they shouldn’t see, it also exposes them to things they should see, and otherwise might not have been able to.

“There is certainly a huge debate right now about how ‘citizen journalism’ should play out and if it is good or bad for the nation and the political process,” Kuhn said. “Anyone can post just about anything on YouTube, but is that journalism? Is it credible? Does it have context? Is it good or bad for society and the political process? I don’t have these answers, nor do I think we will have these answers for quite some time.”

Asked at the lecture what the relevance of YouTube is for those who don’t use it, Wesch replied that it not only has a huge impact on people but also on social opinion, especially in politics.

“Barack Obama first posted a video on YouTube explaining why he was opting out of public financing,” Kuhn said. “I am sure his communications team would love that to spread all around the Internet. However, I am sure his communications team did not love when former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s video spread like wildfire.”

Wesch also mentioned that things can be and have been taken out of context on You-Tube. Several public figures caused public outrage after making controversial comments posted on YouTube.

In one example, former senator George Allen, R-Va., called a volunteer for his Democratic challenger, James Webb “macaca,” which was viewed by many as a racial slur. Webb won the election. In another, Michael Richards, better known as Kramer from “Seinfeld,” made racist comments in a stand-up comedy performance. More recently, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made a joke about bombing Iran.

“You can’t hide stuff any more because somebody has captured it somewhere,” Pren-sky said.

Some think this loss of privacy could be a plus. Volsky said YouTube makes politicians more careful. “The benefits outweigh the consequences,” he said.

Although many are skeptical, YouTube has become a force to be reckoned with, and consultants, academics and business people are taking notice.

“It’s really important that we be open to this change,” Prensky said.

Karla Neely, vice president of Michael A. Burns & Associates, a public relations firm in Dallas, said in an interview that the firm recently posted commercials and how-to videos on YouTube for Thompson’s Water Seal. “We originally created the videos for another purpose,” she said, “but we were surprised to see that there were already a number of videos about deck care on You Tube, so we thought - why not? It takes only minutes to do at no cost.”

Leblon Cachaça, a company that produces a new range of alcoholic drinks, posted videos teaching people how to make the drinks and how to pronounce their names.

Jaime Keller, the company’s marketing director, said in an interview that the videos have increased public interest in the brand. “The response has been really strong,” she said, adding that the company decided it was important to educate people about the brand in a visual way, and the Internet keeps the brand at the front of consumers’ minds. “Once you’re online,” she said, “you’re there forever.”

Justice Mitchell, vice president of Interactive & New Media at Luckie & Company, an advertising agency in Birmingham, Ala., has been using YouTube as an advertorial tool for three years. He said in an interview that being tuned in to the response to videos “allows the advertiser to have far more control over the campaign.”

Wesch said that the YouTube community, despite stretching across continents, is personal and intimate for many of its members, even if they assume different identities. People used to speak of finding themselves, he said, and now people talk about creating themselves. YouTube is linking people “in ways that we can’t even predict,” he said.

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