Ethnographic Approaches to Online Communities: Monetizing YouTube

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.”

He attributes this awkwardness to what he calls “context collapse”, in which offline notions of audience do not begin to satisfy online realities. The context(s) in which your video is being viewed is unknown to you, and the contexts in which it may be altered and re-presented are also. While this phenomenon is precisely what produced YouTube’s sense of community, it is also what protects it from becoming completely overrun by professionally generated content (PGC).
YouTube resisted placing ads on its site, but, “[b]eginning in 2008, Google began to sell YouTube homepage space.” (Kim, 57) Since then, the prominence of ads has grown exponentially, along with the presence of PGC from media conglomerates which creates “an ad-friendly media environment that links content and advertisements smoothly.” (Kim, 59) precisely because it limits the context collapse. Monetizing YouTube thus sacrifices genuine participation for the flattening of content to a form that is consumable by the masses. What the future holds for the YouTube community is uncertain, but for now it is both comforting and disturbing to know that “only 3 percent of all YouTube clips are supported by advertising” (Kim, 57), which is perhaps a victory in terms of quantitative dominance of UGC, but is a major loss in terms of the disproportionate exposure such videos get in comparison.
Kim, Jin. “The Institutionalization of YouTube: From User-generated Content to Professionally Generated Content.” Media, Culture & Society 34:53 (2012)

2 thoughts on “Ethnographic Approaches to Online Communities: Monetizing YouTube

  1. Pingback: Anthropology |

  2. Pingback: “Connection Without Constraint”: Anonymity on 4chan vs. YouTube | WIIH Fellows: New Media, New Knowledge

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