March 18, 2009
The Entrepeneurial Vlogger - Participatory Culture Beyond the Professional-Amateur Divide (Pt. 3 of 3)
By: Jean Burgess and Joshua Green
Last week's installment examined the activities of a specific set of vloggers - those who use YouTube as a platform for economic activity. This week's entry looks at the friction that can emerge from the clash between community and business understandings of what YouTube, and vlogging, might be for.
Oprah Comes to YouTube
The launch of Oprah Winfrey's YouTube channel in early November 2007 provides a particularly stark example of the potential misfit between corporate promotional strategies and organic participation in YouTube. The launch was cross-promoted via a "YouTube special" episode on the Oprah television show in which a number of the subjects and creators of YouTube's most viewed videos were featured as guest stars. There was an intense and immediate flurry of protest videos, spawning discussion about the implications of this event, and the incursion of such a major corporate media player into YouTube's attention economy. One point made by several YouTube commenters was that Oprah was importing the convergence of celebrity and control associated with "big media" into the social media space (by disallowing external embedding of videos moderating comments on videos in her channel) and therefore ignoring the cultural norms that have developed over the life of the network. Late-arriving corporate partners were seen as exploiting the attention that had been produced by earlier, more "authentic," participants; a situation only exacerbated by YouTube's practice of proactively promoting their partnerships with mainstream media companies and celebrities who hadn't done the "hard yards" in the subculture.
The blog devoted to YouTube, YouTube Stars, summed up the themes of the debates that occurred around this event, noting widespread objections to the Oprah channels "one-way conversation" approach, and concerns that the incursions of the mainstream media into YouTube meant an inevitable and ongoing process of corporate colonization, making "authentic" YouTube participation less visible and less valued:
"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." At the same time, the website acknowledges YouTube Inc.'s need to find a way to draw revenue from the site, if only to offset its massive bandwidth costs. However, although the launch of Oprah's YouTube channel provided an opportunity for the YouTube community to perform their own knowledge of how YouTube works, and to make claims about how it should be run, once the dust had settled it became clear that Oprah would not be as disruptive to YouTube's internal attention economy as many of the participants in these debates feared: as at November 2008, a year later, the Oprah channel had only 47,909 subscribers -- a significant number, but still only just over a tenth of the number of subscribers to Michael Buckley's channel, WhatTheBuck. Given Oprah's immense media power and cultural influence, especially in comparison to Michael Buckley's, how can this apparent failure to engage the YouTube audience be explained?
The Oprah brand's faltering steps into the world of participatory media are all the more interesting given that the Oprah show is ostensibly built around, or claims to try and harness, a conversational form and a democratic ethos that could have been eminently compatible with YouTube as a participatory media platform. As well as adopting a more conversational, improvisatory and intimate mode of address than the talk show hosts who had come before her on American television, Oprah "staged an immediate and embodied relationship with her audience" through offering them "tears and hugs". 1 She was an early innovator in the talk-show format, emphasizing the dialogic possibilities of television through her apparently unscripted performances and the placement of conversation on centre stage. She addresses the audience "directly at home, in an ordinary conversational manner, thereby creating a relationship based on trust and care."2 But on television, the Oprah franchise controls, directs and stage-manages these conversations; the Oprah YouTube channel for a time did not allow un-moderated comments, and Oprah's appearances within it were an extension of her television persona, never directly engaging with the specificity of YouTube or any of the people who represent themselves as members of a YouTube "community". As at November 2008, the Oprah YouTube channel is focused around making available "highlight" clips from the television show, which occasionally features YouTube stars as guests; and cross-promoting the Oprah.com website -- but there is very little sense of the same direct address and conversational intimacy in the ways in which Oprah herself engages with the YouTube community. YouTube is not treated as a participatory space, but as a brand extension platform.
In most mainstream discourse, YouTube is by turns understood as a space driven by the social interactions of "amateur" participants, and the site of possibility or conflict for the promotional desires of large media companies. However, the examples discussed in this chapter show that amateur and entrepreneurial uses of YouTube are not separate, but coexistent and coevolving, so that the distinction between market and non-market culture is unhelpful to a meaningful or detailed analysis of YouTube as a site of participatory culture. In broadcast media like television, access to visible participation is restricted by the politics of scarcity and institutionalized professionalism. In contrast, YouTube is an open and underdetermined platform with low barriers to entry. YouTube's culture -- the media forms and practices that combine to constitute the "YouTube-ness" of YouTube -- is determined through the interaction of YouTube Inc., who provide the framework, infrastructure and architecture of the service, the various users who upload content to the website, and the diverse audiences who engage with that content and each other. The contributors to the site are diverse - from large media producers and rights-owners such television stations, sports companies and major advertisers, to small-to-medium enterprises looking for cheap distribution or alternatives to mainstream broadcast systems, cultural institutions, artists, activists, media literate fans, non- professional and amateur media producers. In particular, the professional-amateur divide is disrupted by entrepreneurial vloggers - quasi-professional producers who are also at the same time authentic participants in the YouTube "community."
Entrepreneurial vloggers participate in YouTube's advertising sharing scheme and draw revenue from their presence on YouTube. But unlike digital media companies such as NoGoodTV, who seem to bring to YouTube the same one-way model of participation we know from broadcasting, these producers are active and authentic participants in the YouTube community as well as entrepreneurs, and they use communicative and aesthetic conventions that are continuous with the practices of the YouTube community. Their online success is as much due to their grounded knowledge of and effective participation within YouTube's communicative ecology as it is the savvy with which they produce content, and they are virtuosic in their mastery of YouTube's home- grown forms and practices. As we have argued, the performers and producers who are understood as YouTube Stars, because of their large subscriber base, and the strong brands they have built within YouTube, can be associated with commercial enterprises, or they can be strictly amateurs. Hence, the distinction between professional and amateur, or market and non-market activity is not the key difference between, say, Hot For Words and the Oprah channel. The key analytical distinction, rather, hinges on the extent to which content producers understand YouTube as a participatory medium, and work responsively and proactively within it, rather than attempting to import models of content and experiences from somewhere else.
The examples discussed in this chapter show that it is difficult to make sharp distinctions between professional and "user-created" content, or between "producerly" and audience practices in YouTube. These distinctions are based in industrial logics more at home in the context of the broadcast media rather than an understanding of how people use media in their everyday lives, or a knowledge of how YouTube actually works as a cultural system. It is more helpful to shift from thinking about media production, distribution and consumption to thinking about YouTube in terms of a continuum of cultural participation.
In this context, what the "entrepeneurial YouTubers" can teach us is not so much how to make money from YouTube, but how to build a meaningful presence and an engaged audience in a participatory media space. However charming, distasteful or silly the content of their videos might be, what all the entrepreneurial YouTube stars have in common is the fit between their creative practice and the dynamics of YouTube as a platform for participatory culture. These dynamics rely on reciprocal activity: the vlogging YouTube stars are also subscribers to other channels, participants in discussions occurring within the YouTube community, and audiences for other YouTube videos; their audiences act as interlocutors, co-creators, and critics; through making related videos drawing on the YouTube stars' characters and material, leaving comments, or simply watching. Garnering this type of success requires more than knowledge of how YouTube's culture works; it also requires direct, ongoing participation within it. This can be a challenge for those organizations, whether market-based or publicly funded, that have built strong brands elsewhere, and who rely on those brands to generate attention within YouTube -- with varying degrees of success. Media organisations, cultural institutions and educators with a remit to innovate in social media can learn much from the entrepreneurial vloggers. They may not provide models of aesthetic innovation or of an elevated cultural vision, but they do provide models of how to create attention and engagement in ways that are appropriate to and sustained by YouTube's participatory culture.
Eva Illouz, Oprah and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 54. Ibid., p. 131.
Jean Burgess is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane Australia; Joshua Green is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Comparative Media Studies Program working with the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT.
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YouTube and Archiving
By: Ted Hovet
Students in my film history class at Western Kentucky University settle back and watch a clip of the iconic scene from the ending of Casablanca when Rick and Ilsa part at the airport. A clip that follows shows Rick sitting in his darkened bar, bitterly reminiscing about his past…when a balloon suddenly floats into the frame. Rick appears to knock it away as he pounds his fist on the table. The third clip begins with the animated Warner Brothers logo, followed by the eight- minute cartoon "Carrotblanca" which, as the student presenting these clips points out, provides an ending (Rick/Bugs and Ilsa/Kitty uniting rather than parting) that many viewers would prefer.
The sort of modified "mash-up" of Casablanca created by this student for my class is hardly something new to fan communities and others who take images from one context and reshape or repackage them in an entirely new way. But the media studies classroom creates a context that encourages both students and educators to productively analyze the nature of the vast (though limited) archives of media images and the active recirculation of them for particular purposes. I would argue that the classroom setting provides a laboratory that allows the means by which media is spread to be isolated, studied, and understood. In this sense, all who are interested in the future of spreadable media can look to the classroom as a place where trends will not be not only identified or predicted, but actively shaped as student/fans (as well as the acafans who mentor them) grapple with the practical, ethical, and intellectual parameters of taking media into their own hands and reshaping its content.
For some time now, students have been able to access, interact with, and reassemble texts frequently studied in media history online without having to rely on "hard copy" provided by the institution (e.g. a film or media library on campus) and without having to rent or buy a DVD. This does create some troubling limitations, as students have less control over the content they are working with-instead of choosing their own clips from a DVD they are restricted to what has been posted by others online. But as students search for and assemble these clips, they shape an entirely new context and, thus, an entirely new meaning for even the most "classic" of texts -- a YouTube search often leads to an intriguing package of "extras" surrounding the text under consideration such as obscure interviews with those involved, parodies, and homages. While the student presenting on Casablanca had planned in advance to show "Carrotblanca", the second clip (from a series of doctored film clips called "Famous Balloon Movies") just happened to appear during a search for video clips of the film on YouTube and was too good to pass up. In her presentation, the cultural power of Casablanca was illustrated more strikingly through the way in which it has been reimagined than through its original content. No longer a static - or dead - work, Casablanca is a living text open for new use and new understanding. The way students make use of classic texts, in turn, offers important insights into how current media might be reimagined as it becomes archived.
In another presentation, this on the career of Alfred Hitchcock, a student showed "Key to Reserva," a supposedly lost three-page Hitchcock script that Martin Scorsese sets out to direct. This student, not aware that this was filmed as part of an ad campaign for a Spanish champagne, presented the clip with the excited demeanor of an archivist who has discovered a lost gem. Other students in the class knew the context of this clip, and though there was a moment of awkwardness when it was revealed, the class ended up having a wide- ranging discussion of the use of iconic figures in parody or advertising, the cleverness of the clip in picking up on our expectations of both Hitchcock and Scorsese, and the potential pitfalls of relying on Internet clips that lack a link to the original source material. When we revisited the clip later in the semester and discovered that the audio had been removed from its YouTube version due to a lack of "permission," yet another series of issues was raised in terms of the legal and ethical limits of online archives.
The most exciting development of presentations like these is that they show that the classroom is no longer isolated from the material it studies, but becomes an active site of creation. The media history classroom is transformed by student users of new media, who construct their own histories and assemble a distinct context for the topic under consideration. At the same time, though, the classroom should transform these students by encouraging them to construct an analysis and argument around the texts they use. The classroom is not designed to ask students to stop (temporarily) being fans or users—quite the opposite: it should allow them a focused forum in which to present their expertise. However, it should also encourage them to organize their expertise in a systematic way and use it to gain a deeper understanding of both media texts and the contexts in which they are used or spread. For instance students might articulate their criteria for the importance or excellence of a particular text; analyze the context in which particular content circulates online and in fan communities; and discern patterns of rules (formal and informal) governing its online presence. Students in media studies classrooms, many of whom will go on to careers in arenas that produce media texts, will surely play a key role in articulating principles for the future of media archives and their ongoing repackaging and reimagining by users.
The media studies classroom should help students to better understand that the means by which this content is made available generates assumptions about how this material is best "used" and understood, and to be mindful of their own stakes in participating in this evolving pattern of use and comprehension. As with any archive, the archive of media history available to students benefits from a particular kind of "training" in its use that can be provided in an academic setting; reciprocally, my classroom is constantly transformed by the "training" I receive in the use of these media archives by students. Far from the distant "ivory tower," the media studies classroom plays a crucial role not only in understanding but in shaping the spread of media.
Ted Hovet teaches American Studies, film studies, and composition at Western Kentucky University. He currently researches the emergence of the screen as the "default" site for image display in the late nineteenth century and the continued dominance of this method of display across various media today. He is also investigating the pedagogical issues involved in the introduction of new technologies into educational settings and the application of concepts of fair use in the classroom. His PhD is from Duke University (1995). He is currently researching for a project on "Framing Motion: Containing the Image in Early Cinema and Beyond".