Youtube and Anthropology? Never Occured to Me…

Ah English 3372, you never fail to amaze me. For this weeks blog we were asked to watch the YouTube video An anthropological introduction to YouTube by Michael Wesch. I rarely say this, but I believe this piece actually changed some of my long-held views.

The video was of a speech that Wesch was presenting at the Library of Congress. The major point he was trying to make is that YouTube is now a very large and vast community. This community is made up of users from all over the world and just like the real world, the views, opinions, and preferences are limited in variance only by the number of users. To say YouTube has something for everyone is an understatement of epic proportions. In fact, one of Wesch’s talking points makes this abundantly clear: YouTube has more “programming” uploaded in a six month period than ABC has put out in its 63 years of existence. Let that sink in for a little bit.

My initial thoughts on YouTube were that it is nothing more than a desolate wasteland of angsty teenagers whining in to their webcams that only contained a few oases of decent material. I still believe that is mostly the case, but now think that perhaps the decent stuff is not as sparse as I once thought.

One of the first phenomenons Wesch points out is the Numa Numa guy. Honestly, I didn’t get the appeal when it first went viral and I still don’t get it now, but that’s not the point. The point is that many people connected with it. Perhaps it touched a desire in people to have fun without worrying about what others think? Whatever the cause, people loved it and did their best to imitate it. Some examples can be seen here, here, and here. There are many, many more out there as well as parodies of the original Numa Numa video.

Some people may view these parodies as mockery, but Wesch makes the case that they are emulation instead. I believe he is right. When we see something we like, we want to have that in our lives one way or another. In a digital world were everything is put online for the whole world to see, we strive to be seen as part of the in crowd. We emulate what’s popular and attempt to be part of it one way or another.

One talking point that Wesch brought up really stuck with me. It was an idea that Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto came up with. He calls it “networked individualism”. The idea that while we move away from community and towards individualism, we are still seeking a network of like minded people. Places like YouTube allow this kind of connection. Sure, we aren’t meeting in bowling alleys, bars, or even churches like we used to, but human nature still causes us to seek out those connections. The beauty of YouTube and the Web 2.0 platform as a whole is that not only can we find those connections, but we can find connections that fit us more than ever before possible. In my humble opinion, it really is a marvel and one of the best things the internet has to offer.

Vlogging was obviously featured have in Wesch’s speech. I have never attempted to make a video blog and I probably never will for many of the reasons he laid out. First and foremost, I find it really hard to talk to a webcam even when I have someone up on Skype. Even with that “face to face” interaction, I feel like both I and the other person are speaking to the camera and not to each other. With no one in particular on the line I imagine that speaking to a camera would be even more awkward. I can imagine that I would have that dichotomy of emotions that he mentions. After all, you are speaking to no one and everyone all at the same time.

I found some of the controversies covered to be simply moot in my mind. Honestly, who cares if Lonelygirl15 was real or not? I simply did not understand why it would matter to people in the long run. If her vlog really did touch people then the emotion should have remained true whether or not it was all scripted. Showing outrage over the fact that it was all faked is like suddenly being upset that your favorite soap opera had writers all along. If that connection meant something before then there is no real reason why it shouldn’t now. Also, the way some people get their videos moved up in rank should not be surprising to anyone either. Tricks like that are just another variation of “gaming the system”. What’s the best way to game a almost every system ever known to man? Sex, that’s what. It has and always will be true that sex sells. I imagine that YouTube is far from immune to this most basic of human instincts. Even if they change the system tomorrow, someone will find a way to game it within the day if not sooner.

Finally, Wesch ended his talk with something that actually touched me. He brought up bnessel1973. This is a man who went through a hell that I would never wish on even my worst of enemies. His statement was one that I believe is not just the truth of YouTube, but the truth of Web 2.0 in general. To sum up his elegant words, many people believe that what gets put on YouTube should be made to change the world, but he made his to help him live in it. Isn’t that what we are all doing when we interact on these sites? I think so.

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