In late June of 2008, professor of Anthropology Michael Wesch uploaded a video of himself giving a presentation at the Library of Congress entitled “An anthropological introduction to YouTube”. Wesch recounts the history of YouTube, largely framed as interactions between individuals in a community that rapidly began to form norms and cultural practices. At this point, user-generated content (UGC) was by far the most prominent type of content, privileging videos that were intended for “less than a hundred viewers”, according to Wesch. Some of these are home videos, but many of these are video blogs (vlogs), ones that characterize what the YoutTube community was and may never be again.
“We wanted to look at the actual medium of community for YouTube, which is primarily the platform itself, but also webcams and screens and we wondered, ‘what is it like to build a community through webcams and screens?’ and that meant actually participating, and we got this great insight early on.”
Wesch details the ways in which he and his students engaged in YouTube’s participatory culture, in order to gain more insight into the dynamics of amateur users’ (especially vloggers) culture. This technique of inquiry known as “participant observation” is one of the fundamental tools of Anthropology. In his talk, he gives glimpses into his students’ struggles to anchor their vlogs in norms that they understood, which, from an Anthropological perspective, signifies that they are experiencing a site of cultural difference. This site provides for self-reflection on the ways in which we “normally” communicate, but also for a heightened self-consciousness. Wesch explains,
“…the moment you look into a webcam for the first time and you try to start talking you have this sense like you don’t know who you’re talking to, and, therefore, you just come out sounding all awkward.”