Youtube has transformed the way we interact through, in and around video media. In creating a participatory video sharing service platform, YouTube has flipped traditional communication broadcast systems on its head giving everyone the chance to ‘Broadcast Yourself’. Through a critical, historical lens we will see how it is the platform through which new economic business models for making money online have been created, new political activism and mobilisation has developed, new ways of socially connecting with each other and new interconnected community have been created.
What is Youtube?
Youtube is an online video-sharing service meets social media platform that has exploded to become a “force to be reckoned within contemporary popular culture,” says Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley (2013, p. vii). YouTube claims itself in this video to give everyone a platform, declaring “Our mission is to give everyone a voice and show them the world,” (Youtube, 2019). A mission that has revolutionised the way we watch by flipping traditional media forms of broadcast video communication and turning the everyday person into a broadcaster to the mass.
Rewind to the 1950s, television was a communal place where the family gathered around to watch news presenters tell you what was happening in the world. It was a top-down, one-way “transitional model” of communication (Carey, 1989, p. 18) that traditionally had “no direct interaction between the producers…and their audience or between audience members themselves” (Bednarek and Caple 2012, p. 25). The developing Internet and World Wide Web challenged these traditional models of communication and promised to be a place of “new technical possibilities” for collective interaction and collaboration McQuail (2002, p. 5).
Jawed Karim, one of YouTube founders got the idea after struggling to find a video of the 2004 Superbowl half time performance featuring Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s controversial wardrobe malfunction. Joined by cofounders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, the three former PayPal employees decided to create a platform that solved the “technical barriers to the widespread sharing of video online,” (Burgess, Green, Jenkins, Hartley, 2013, p. 1) and launched YouTube in June of 2005 with its first video Me at the zoo.
YouTube was only one of many competing sharing services at the time, however, Karim claimed its success is dependent on four key features (Gannes, 2006) that developed over numerous redesigns:
- Video recommendations via the ‘related videos’ list,
- An email link to enable video sharing,
- Comments (and other social networking functionality),
- And an embeddable video player.
These features also highlight the reasons that YouTube has transformed the way we watch and interact with video online today. At its core, YouTube provided a “simple, integrated interface within which users could upload, publish and view streaming videos without high levels of technical knowledge” and thus flattening the traditional models of communication to give everyone the opportunity to broadcast their ideas to the mass. To begin with, the platform was branded as “Your Digital Video Repository” yet through its development shaped by its users’ participation and changing Web 2.0 user practices, it evolved into the “platform for public self-expression” that we know today, with the famous byline “Broadcast Yourself” (Grossman, 2006). As Grossman suggests, this ideological shift from “the idea of the website as a personal storage facility for video content” to a networked platform of participation, creation and sharing highlights how YouTube evolved and responded to the ideas about a user-led revolution that that characterizes rhetoric around Web 2.0,” (Grossman, 2006).
Importantly, Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley (2013 p.4) note that YouTube is not a video business, but rather is a unique business that provides a “convenient and usable platform for online video sharing” where users create the content, inspires other user participation and attracts new audiences. This at the crux, is why YouTube is so transformative, because it is business model that puts its users’ participation at the forefront as both a consumer, content creator and community builder, an innovative concept that has given YouTube massive power and impact.
In October 2006, Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion (Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley (2013, p. 2).
After Google’s purchased YouTube, in May 2007 they introduced a new innovation called the Partner Program, a system of letting people get paid for their viral videos (Dickey, 2013). A new business model that allowed the family who uploaded the viral ‘Charlie bit my finger’ video to get paid more than $1.3 million in royalties from the 870 million views of the 55-second clip (Musguin-Rowe and Oakley, 2017).
Of course, YouTube is ultimately a commercial business aiming to make a profit, and in August 2007 Google introduced the first YouTube ads onto the platform (Dickey, 2013). As Konig and Rasch suggest, “the gathering of user information is the backbone of digital media economics” in our current online landscape. YouTube runs a convenient and user-friendly platform for video sharing, and the cost of this “free” service is the “data each user actively or passively inputs” that can be sold on to advertisers for profit (Konig and Rasch 2014, p. 18-19). In our online media landscape oversaturated with information, and billions of users with limited attention spans, advertisers will pay top dollar for a 30 second, compulsory targeted advertisement to play in front of a watcher who is likely to be interested in their product (Davenport and Beck, 2001, p.20). This is the attention economy that YouTube thrives upon with a business model that has evolved to balance all its stakeholder needs including, users who want access platform content, content creators wanting to make money and the business itself making a profit.
As Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley (2013 p.4) say “Love it or loathe it, YouTube is now a major part of the mainstream media landscape” but as with any online digital media service, it does not exist in a bubble by itself. YouTube.com is the second most popular website in the global market, holds the monopoly of the industry as the most popular video website with billions of videos watched every day (Fisher, 2019). This top industry position is due to a network of interconnected parties all working together in a unique dynamic seen in the graphic below:
YouTube works in close partnership with Google, its owner, to embed YouTube videos in its search results and displays them prominently at the top of the results page (Google.com, 2019). It also gains huge engagement from mobile applications on the Apple iPhones and iPads, as well as Google Play and Android mobile devices that create engaging, immersive video watching experience.
YouTube’s direct competition includes Dailymotion and Vimeo, who offer similar video hosting services, and Twitch, that holds a strong online gaming streaming community. YouTube also competes with online TV and movie streaming services like Netflix and Stan, Social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram (both of which also offer video publishing services), and Music streaming services like Apple Music and Soundcloud. In such a turbulent and fast-paced digital landscape, attention is a “valuable commodity” (Davenport and Beck, 2001, p.20). YouTube must continue adapting to meet their participants’ needs and keep up with the affordances of the ever-evolving Internet or face the threat of users moving to another platform that suits their needs and taking their attention, and thus profits with them.
As we have discussed, YouTube’s value comes from it being a platform of “participatory culture”, equally contingent on the users who create the content and the audience who engage around that content (Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley 2013, p. vii). The contributors range from large media producers, advertisers, celebrities, to artists, activists, media literate fans and amateur media producers, (Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley 2013, p. vii).With audiences from all walks of life including those who watch their favourite YouTubers religiously at the same time every week, to casual viewers who might have been linked to YouTube from external sources.
Like, Comment, Subscribe, Transform
Critically analysing YouTube as the innovative digital video sharing platform it has become, we can see how YouTube has dramatically transformed the way we use the Internet in many ways, including; economically providing a new way of making money, politically providing a new place to communicate and mobilise action, and socially and culturally creating new ways of interacting with each other in new communities.
- New ways of making money
YouTube has widened the playing field so even primary school students have the technical know-how to make Youtube videos and the ability to make money from this economic model. YouTube does not have to ‘employ’ people to make content to keep its audience, but instead partners with content creators who have their own established and growing fan bases (Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley, 2013).
‘YouTuber’ has become a new job title of almost celebrity status, and a full-time job for some. For example in the field of gaming commentary videos like PewDiePie with his 99.7 million subscribers, or Jeffree Star beauty and cosmetics Youtuber with 16.5 million subscribers.
However, while this new economic model promising to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to prosper, we must also acknowledge the Digital Divide embedded in society that prevents this from being true (Park, Thomas and Wilson, 2018). Economic discrepancies, generational education gaps, and unequal access to fast enough broadband networks or upload speeds are just some of the underlying issues of the digital divide that favour some creators over other’s economic success in this model (Park, Thomas and Wilson, 2018). So despite YouTube (2019) offering the promise of “whatever your thing is, here, it can become the next big thing,” we can critically see how instead “the Internet,” and YouTube, “reflects rather than circumvents offline power structures and relations,’’ (Russell 2005, p. 515 as cited in Kellner and Kim 2010, p. 28) to perpetuate an unequal economic landscape.
2. New ways of communicating and mobilising action
YouTube has also been seen to play a transformative role in political communications and mobilisation of action. In February 2011, during the Arab Spring in Iraq the strongest example of YouTube political power was seen as a “group of young Iraqi intellectuals, journalists, students, government employees, and unemployed youth posted their plan to organize demonstrations against the government using social media” and used YouTube to bypass the government restrictions on that were trying to limit the coverage (Rawi, 2014 p.1).
Ultimately, YouTube became a platform of free expression and powerful political activism and “played an instrumental role in disseminating messages of freedom and democracy” (Dickey, 2013) transforming the way we engage politically online forever. YouTube is also could a political archive, that holds governments to account with videos of historic events such as Tiananmen Square Tank Man.
3. New ways of interacting and forming new communities
Finally, the media is the way we understand the world around us and having real, genuine representations available for our viewing are critically important in creating an empathetic and realistic world view (Orgad, 2014, p. 47). YouTube is a powerful visual medium that has made it easier to share new, unique stories of minorities who may not be represented correctly in traditional media systems. YouTube (2019) even says “This is the rawest, purest, most unfiltered portrait of who we are as people. We believe that everyone deserves to have a voice, and that the world is a better place when we listen, share and build community through our stories.” This is true, to a certain extent.
New communities have evolved from yoga enthusiasts who join together for 30-Day-At-Home-Yoga Challenge, to ASMR artists sharing Secret Santa presents to each other, to educational channels like this CrashCourse on the Industrial Revolution. Communities shaped by YouTube’s affordances that guide new social interactions like ‘upvoting’, ‘downvoting’, ‘commenting’ and ‘subscribing’ to create productive, supportive and healthy places of productive connection (Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley, 2013).
However, again we must critically analyse and acknowledge the prominence of Western, English-speaking perspectives and representations on YouTube, as Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley (2013) suggest, and how this falls short of a true “unfiltered portrait of us as people” that YouTube (2019) talks of.
Ultimately, as we have seen YouTube’s transformative power through a myriad of different lenses. From being a leading frontrunner in creating a user friendly platform through which more users could access video content, to creating a social networking platform through which people can engage around that content and constantly updating and evolving to meet the desires and needs of all participants in its ecology – we can see how we have shaped YouTube.
From providing a convenient, user-friendly platform where new people can share their videos, broadcast their ideas, form new communities, make money, mobilise political support and action, connect socially, and create a better understanding of our world – YouTube has changed us.
Bednarek, M, and Caple, H. (2012) News Discourse, edited by Monika Bednarek, and Helen Caple, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, ProQuest Ebook Central. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=4gVFrURn2voC&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:%22Monika+Bednarek%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiaj7jMhIPUAhVGoJQKHQ4PByQQ6AEIJjAA#v=snippet&q=In%20other%20words%2C%20for%20the%20most%20part&f=false
Blumler, J. and Gurevitch, M. (2001). The New Media and Our Political Communication Discontents: Democratizing Cyberspace. Information, Communication & Society, 4, 1–13.
Burgess, J., Green, J., Jenkins, H., & Hartley, J. (2013). YouTube : online video and participatory culture. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Wiley.
Carey, J. (1989). A cultural approach to communication. In Communication as culture: Essays on media and society (pp. 13-36). Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Couldry, N. (2015). The myth of ‘us’: digital networks, political change and the production of collectivity. Information, Communication & Society, 18(6), 608–626. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2014.979216 ISSN: 1369-118X
Davenport, T., & Beck, J. (2001). The attention economy. Boston: Harvard Business School. doi:1578518717, 9781578518715
Dickey, M. (2013). The 22 Key Turning Point of the History or YouTube on Tech Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/key-turning-points-history-of-youtube-2013-2?r=US&IR=T#youtube-became-the-go-to-place-for-the-presidential-election-in-august-2012-21
Douglas Kellner & Gooyong Kim (2010) YouTube, Critical Pedagogy, and Media Activism, The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 32:1, 3-36, DOI: 10.1080/10714410903482658 To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10714410903482658
Fisher, S. (2019). The Top 10 Most Visited Sites of 2019. Retrieved 1 November 2019 from https://www.lifewire.com/most-popular-sites-3483140
Foot, K. A., Boczkowski, P. J., & Gillespie, T. (2014). Media Technologies : Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Gillespie, T. (2018). All platforms moderate. In Custodians of the internet: platforms, content moderation, and the hidden decisions that shape social media (pp. 1–23). New Haven: Yale University Press. Doi: 030023502X, 9780300235029
Gueorguieva, V. (2007). Voters, MySpace, and YouTube: The Impact of Alternative Communication Channels on the 2006 Election Cycle and Beyond. Social Science Computer Review, 26(3), 1–13.
Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kelty, C. M. (2014). The fog of freedom. In T. Gillespie, P. J. Boczkowski, & K. A. Foot (Eds.), Media technologies : essays on communication, materiality, and society (pp. 195–220). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Konig, R., & Rasch, M. (2014). A database of intention. In Society of the query reader: Reflections on web search (pp. 16–29). Institute of networked cultures.
McQuail, D. (2002). Origins and development of the field of study. In McQuail’s reader in mass communication theory (pp. 4–20). SAGE.
Musguin-Rowe, S. and Oakley, N. (2017). ‘Charlie bit my finger’ viral video is now 10 years old – and its stars are all grown up on www.mirror.co.uk. 22 May 2017. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/real-life-stories/charlie-bit-finger-viral-video-10474509
Orgad, S. (2014). Media Representation and the Global Imagination, edited by Shani Orgad, Polity Press, ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/lib/usyd/reader.action?docID=1651144
Park, S., Thomas, J., Wilson, C. (2018). Australia’s digital divide is not going away. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/australias-digital-divide-is-not-going-away-91834
Rawi, H. (2014). The Arab Spring and online protests in Iraq.(Report). International Journal of Communication.
Russell, A. (2005). Editorial: Exploring Digital Resistance. New Media & Society, 7, 513–515.
Zeeshaniqblach.Blogspot (2014) Google buys Youtube. Accessed on 7 November 2019 at http://zeeshaniqbalch.blogspot.com/2014/03/google-buys-youtube.html