Book Review of YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture

On: September 17, 2009
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About Tim van Essen
Built: 1987 Born: Amsterdam Company(s): Co-founder of and Student: MA New Media and LL.B (Law School). Particular interestfields: New Media (gadgets), debate on Piratebay, Intellectual property law, medialaw (internetlaw in particular) and Intelligence Studies. Besides that I play an active role in a local political party [HAP] in the Haarlemmermeer. Hates: People who adore Mac. Leisure time: What's that??


Show off your favorite videos to the world.
Take videos of your dogs, cats, and other pets.
Blog the videos you take with your digital camera or cell phone.
Securely and privately show your videos to your friends and family
around the world. …and much, much more!

(About Us page of YouTube, 2005)

YouTube. One of the worst names for a cover of a book you could imagine these days. Think only of SEO (search engine optimization). If you Google ‘YouTube’ you get results. Where do we find info about this book or where do we buy this book? Ah, If we look on the inside of the book we see the full name YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Finally some clues!

But ok, more important is the content of the book. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture is written by dr. Jean Burgess and dr. Joshua Green. This study on YouTube is surprisingly ‘new’ for me on a lot of points. We all know YouTube, and some of us are active contributors. But this book will give you a good insight in the ‘back-end structure’ of YouTube. How is this largest participatory video community of the world structured? And in which way does these structures evolving as media system in the economic and social context of broader media and technological change?

If we take a closer look at the book we see that it’s not that thick, 172 pages and written in a very easy-to-read-style with lot of examples. At the end of the book there are two essays included of well-known academics Henry Jenkins and John Hartley. These two essays provide a nice exploration of the challenges and opportunities developments to some of the central areas of debate in media and cultural studies. This book differs from other books on YouTube because of the methodological approach. In the scientific field there are two other approaches. One is a study on YouTube that leaves from a computer science and social network perspective.[1][2] The other is a big ethnographic study on YouTube.[3] Both interesting to read… The study of Burgess and Green combined two methods of research. On the one hand they use qualitative close reading of media and cultural studies. On the other hand they analyze over 4300 ‘most popular’ (viewed, responded, favorited and discussed) videos with a quantitative survey. They argue that this middle way approach helps them to understand the emerging issues on current debates about cultural politics and digital media.

They start off by beginning to look at YouTube’s origins and the prehistory of the debates around it, contextualizing them within the politics of popular culture, especially in the light of new media. Burgess and Green uses an empirical survey of the websites most popular content to uncover some of the different ways YouTube has been put to use. Think for instance of cultural participation (participatory culture) and the mode of thinking it surrounds. They argue that YouTube has been co-created by various institutions and individuals and is part of a participatory culture. They look at the most pressing discussions about this participatory culture: the unevenness of participation and voice. One of the outcomes of the authors is that more than half of the online content on YouTube is user generated like vlogs for instance. Another outcome is that users (individuals) are a large majority of the contributors on YouTube. Big traditional media companies are a smaller part of the contributors. They conclude that individuals contribute a substantial amount of media that comes from the traditional media institutions. These are for example quotes or parts of video clips.

In the second part of the book they take a closer look at YouTube as a social network. They argue that YouTube is more than a distribution platform that can be used to broadcast to an online audience. Instead of that they take the vlog as their key example and state that these vlog entries announces the social presence of the vlogger and calls into being an audience who share the knowledge and experience of YouTube as a social space. So Burgess and Green expose the YouTube community on a micro level, to look at power structures/relations within this community. For example; someone who participate and contribute on the website is a ‘leaduser’. This is a person who understands the way YouTube is working and can apply his own skills in a way that make sense within that system. But again this form of cultural citizenship is limited. Both digital literacy and the unevenness of participation and voice are important issues for cultural politics, they argue.

In my opinion YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture offers a great insight at the ‘back-end’ of YouTube that can attract both already and not familiar users of YouTube. This book is written in a very easy-to-read-style. It’s interesting reading material if you’re interested in modern and future implications of online media.

additional readings:
This is a short summery of the two added essays of Henry Jenkins and John Hartley. Jenkins looks in his essay at the often under-acknowledged, as he states, prehistories of youtube that are to be found in minority, activist and alternative media, in order to better understand the limits of youtube. Hartley’s essay is about the longue durée history of media, polpular literacy and the public. He addresses the question to which extent user-created expressions is capable of being scaled up to contribute to a more inclusive cultural public sphere and the growth of knowledge.

[1]Cha et al. 2007.’ I Tube, You Tube, Everybody Tubes: Analyzing the World’s largest User Generated Content Video System.’ Paper presented at IMC’07, San Diego, CA.
[2]Gill et al 2007. ‘Youtube Traffic Characterization: A View From the Edge.’ Paper presented at IMC’07, San Diego, CA.
[3]Lange, P. ‘Commenting on Comments: Investigating responses to Antagonism on Youtube.’

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