Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People
(University of Toronto Press)
US: May 2010
YouTube is a cultural phenomenon, a fascinating repository of video art both professional and amateur. As such, its milieu deserves exploration and explication. Someday, someone will write a lively, engaging, thought-provoking book about all this. Unfortunately, Michael Strangelove wrote Watching YouTube, instead.
First off: this is an academic book, written by an academic, published by the University of Toronto and presumably meant to be read by other academics or students of cultural theory or media studies. It’s not meant to be read by the average person curious about the YouTube phenomenon. The author presumes familiarity with a broad range of cultural theorists, some of whom he agrees with and some of whom he rebuts. It’s all terribly highbrow, notwithstanding the fact that the subject is the very antithesis of highbrow. I am not the intended audience for this book, so keep that in mind.
YouTube is such a huge beast by now, with thousands of new videos uploaded every day, that any random sampling will include some head-shakers and eye-rollers. Strangelove’s focus is anything but random, focusing as he does on a number of specific areas of interest to him: home life, video diaries, women, political debate and so on. It’s no surprise that many of the videos he cites are indeed “extraordinary” for one reason or another.
One interesting discussion focuses on the various groups of women who have used YouTube as a platform to disseminate videos of identity and support. These include various ethnic groups, as well as subgroups such as “fat women”, “thin women”, and “Barbie girls”. Disturbingly, YouTube is also used as a platform by anorexics, white supremacists, violent women and militants of all kinds. Given YouTube’s admirable non-censorship policy, these negative videos remain online.
That supposed non-censorship policy is not without its skeptics. Porn has never been allowed onsite, and is removed whenever found. More controversially, movie studios and other intellectual property holders periodically sue YouTube over the illegal posting of copyrighted works—movie clips, TV episodes, and music videos. In response, the site sweeps such postings offline, although even these attempts are erratic and incomplete. MIT hosts a site, called YouTomb, which tracks the deleted videos and helps members to sue if they feel their rights of fair use have been breached.
Strangelove also touches on the phenomenon of members who upload videos with intentionally misleading titles in the hopes of attracting hits from viewers who might otherwise be uninterested. My favorite anecdote concerns a 46-second clip called “XXX Porn XXX”, which has garnered over 111 million views. It’s a rant about the need to abolish the United States Senate. (Go ahead, take a look. You know you want to.)
Unfortunately, despite the fascinating subject matter, the book is written in the deadly academic style mentioned above. “The aesthetics of the YouTube experience, the settings it uses, the styles it embodies, and the emotions it generates reflect the prevailing condition of late-modern capitalism as it slides slowly into the postmodern condition.” Um, okay. Any reader wishing to know what the author means by “the postmodern condition” is out of luck. Presumably we’re supposed to know. Likewise, the assumption that capitalism is sliding into it—whatever it is—is taken as a given.
Another habit of academic writing is the constant reference to other sources. Obviously this is necessary to a degree, but at times Strangelove can’t seem to write two sentences consecutively without citing some researcher or other. Is this poor writing? Probably not. Nor is it poor scholarship, but it certainly makes the book a slog to get through.
The exception to this tendency occurs when the author takes a paragraph to outline and analyze the action occurring in a video. Not coincidentally, these are the liveliest moments in the book. Then it’s back to, “Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson speak of how women’s unpolished and unprocessed home movies emit ‘an aura of authenticity.’ Yet many literary and film critics deny the authenticity of women’s experiences and position them as imprisoned by the male gaze.” Have fun with this, kids, I’m gonna go watch YouTube.
Better, then, to set the theorizing aside and concentrate on the facts. Strangelove isn’t stingy with them: YouTube contains more than 150 million videos; as of 2008, Americans accounted for only 30 percent of viewers (down from 70 percent just two years ealier); YouTube is the behemoth of online video sites, commanding 40 percent of the audience; its closest competitor draws 3.1 percent. Only 14percent of the video content is produced professionally, and 49percent of it is created by women. A two-minute clip of a baby laughing, entitled “Hahaha”, has been viewed over 100 million times. And on and on. An abundance of details and statistics is here, unearthed by Strangelove in his research.
What he doesn’t unearth is an engaging writing style. He positions YouTube as a harbinger of changes within society, whether it’s vis-à-vis our representations of ourselves (through video diaries) or our families (with teenagers posting embarrassing clips of parents and siblings). He also sees the site as a new forum for political and religious debate, name-calling, hate speech and unkindness of all types. Readers interested in a scholarly review of the current moment may well enjoy the analysis. Those of us who value lively writing and the ability to render arcane concepts accessible will have to wait for another book.