Searching vs. Browsing on YouTube

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On: October 3, 2021
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Abstract: In Stephen Ramsay’s essay entitled “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books” he expounds on the difference between searching and browsing when completing research while simultaneously arguing that browsing-only research can eventually eliminate one shared culture. This commentary shows that the movement away from a shared culture through only browsing can be seen on Youtube, for even though the site is open for searching, the algorithm makes it much more difficult to find certain content.

Every day of the year, humans are met with an inexplicable amount of information. From the seemingly neverending pages of Google search results to the thousands of public libraries scattered all around the world, it becomes increasingly impossible to even try to consume half of it. As there is always information, there are always scholars who have dedicated themselves to learning impressive amounts about one specific topic; however, there is also great importance found in entering a site such as Youtube with the expectations of only browsing. In “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books” author Stephen Ramsay draws a distinctive line between the research acts of searching and browsing. Through the new media object that is the Youtube search function, the act of serendipitously browsing without an expected outcome becomes more difficult than in a physical library, and the shared experiences that emerge from organized informational lists unite cultures in a way Youtube browsing may never be able to do.

Even though Ramsay does not specifically mention Youtube in his text, the way the site is designed fits directly into his theory that the Web is a cesspool of information with a seemingly undetectable single order, for “Even in the very early days of the Web, one felt the soul-crushing lack of order” (Ramsay 2). When searching for any given topic on YouTube, there must first be a searchable subject. There is no option that includes aimlessly walking through stacks and stacks of books that actually may have no current importance to one’s interest. 

Everything is curated, for “[A]s the owner of YouTube, Google is a major curator of this archive, presenting videos on the YouTube homepage” (Gehl 49). When considering the proper archival technique for this colossal collection of videos, Ramsay’s question of obtaining a single shared culture is again inescapable. Gehl similarly questions “[H]ow do we decide what digital cultural artifacts are saved?” (55). There has to be some content that somehow stays relevant for generations to come. Also, will it be easier to preserve a shared culture when one simply can walk into a public library for free rather than own a computer and have access to the ever-changing software?

Another way YouTube makes browsing more difficult is that the content is jumbled. There are filters on the platform such as upload date or duration, but “Users upload more than 400 hours of video to YouTube every minute” (Pierce), so the years and years of information are simply forming an even larger pile from which to sift through. From its humble beginnings in 2005, the platform now has celebrated its 16th anniversary. “YouTube has spent years refining how it makes recommendations, and the algorithms are now so accurate that the company feels comfortable suggesting just a video or two” (Pierce). This is doing something a library cannot. This is not browsing, and this is not searching; this is pure algorithmic control that blocks users from viewing options that the platform deems useless toward the one specific user.

The first YouTube video was posted on April 24, 2005, and it featured one young boy standing in front of the elephants at the San Diego zoo (jawed). A seemingly useless video now boasts over 187 million views, and it is highly unlikely the first book in a library could obtain similar status. As Ramsay concludes, searching online is straightforward, yet searching for the first book may be impossible without the help of a librarian or an outside archiving system. This, though, does not mean the first video on YouTube holds any more importance than an “anarchic” book in a library; it simply lessens the time of the research process and steers one further away from the concept of a shared culture.

From a study performed on the YouTube algorithm, “[I]t is clear that YouTube’s search mechanism is designed to pick up on what we have called ‘newsy’ moments, and whenever it does, results can change drastically from one day to the next” (Rieder et al. 63). This study relates back to the theory that Ramsay pens which claims a writerly, anarchic text can be more useful than a readerly, institutional text (9). It may be that these culture-creating texts are being dropped to the bottom of the YouTube algorithm for the absence of their newsworthy moments. This same study finds “Views, likes, watch time or channel subscribers, potentially on a per time frame basis, are straightforward metrics when it comes to deciding whether a video has more or less ‘relevance’ than others” (Rieder et al. 53), and this is already something a browse in a library is not capable of doing. To go even further, “An algorithm could…forecast the success of a newly posted video, rank it favourably and relegate it quickly if it fails to perform” (Rieder et al. 53). This is even further proof that there is not currently any central hierarchy on YouTube. As simple as it can be to purposefully search on Youtube, that simplicity is met with a more difficult contrast of simply “screwing around.”

Ramsay states, “If everyone is screwing around, one might legitimately wonder whether we can achieve a shared experience of culture sufficient to the tasks we’ve traditionally set for education—especially matters such as participation in the public square” (8). How could this be achievable on YouTube when every user is exposed to their own unique “public square?” It is therefore concluded that searching on a platform like YouTube is much simpler, for when there is a specific kind of content in mind, it may be more easily reachable through one’s fingertips. However, aimlessly browsing may be met with more success in a physical library, and because of the YouTube algorithm, the concept of one shared culture becomes much more unattainable.

Works Cited

Gehl, Robert. “YouTube as Archive: Who Will Curate This Digital Wunderkammer?” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 43–60, doi:10.1177/1367877908098854.

jawed. “Me at the Zoo.” YouTube, YouTube, 23 Apr. 2005, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNQXAC9IVRw

Pierce, David. “We’re Drowning in Content. Recommendations Are What We Need.” Wired, Conde Nast, 26 Apr. 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/04/youtube-app-redesign-recommendations/ .

Ramsay, Stephen. “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books.” 17 Apr. 2010, pp. 1-9, https://libraries.uh.edu/wp-content/uploads/Ramsay-The-Hermeneutics-of-Screwing-Around.pdf.

Rieder, Bernhard, et al. “From Ranking Algorithms to ‘Ranking Cultures’: Investigating the Modulation of Visibility in YouTube Search Results.” Convergence, vol. 24, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 50–68, doi:10.1177/1354856517736982.

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