YouTube at 8: A journey to the centre of the internet meme

Five things we now know.

The first YouTube clip is eight years old this week. I thought I’d write a brief note detailing some of the things I think of when I think of YouTube. Here are five things that came to my mind:

1. Trolling

One of the things that YouTube is often linked with is trolling – the practice (or the art) of being mean or controversial to get a reaction. The rest of the media, particularly non web-native media outlets, love to talk about trolling because it suits particular techno-dystopian narratives and it relates to things like cyber-bullying (or bullying in general). At its worst trolling is of course very damaging and is often implicated in tragic stories where bullying has got out of hand. YouTube is like the Premier League of trolling: nothing good comes from reading YouTube comments.

2. The YouTube generation

I hear these words a lot – a few months ago Wired ran a big feature on it, and last week the Guardian wrote a rather gushing piece about the YouTube generation too. Commentary on the YouTube generation is focussed around a strand of youth produced and youth oriented YouTube channels. The YouTube generation tends to be presented as evidence of a major disruption in media production and consumption which reduces to “the kids like making and watching their own TV”.

At the heart of the YouTube generation lies a number of prominent video bloggers who discuss their personal and cultural lives in pieces to (web) camera. For various reasons these few have risen to be the most watched and the most talked about (the talking and the watching fuelling one another) and this begins to afford them the opportunity to make money. The bedroom producer, like the Internet Troll, is a bankable character for a feature writer and so these video bloggers have become of interest to the wider media. Discussion of this blogging sub-culture in wider media tends to be simplistic, overlooking the wider picture: the video bloggers’ successes are offered as indicative not of a sub-culture but of an homogenised, monolithic youth culture and video blogging is presented as being the sum total of those young peoples’ media lives. In fact youth engagement with television, radio, music, and many other aspects of cultural life remains full and diverse. Kids who engage with YouTube content are also doing other things. They are consuming long form video content (films, TV) they are going to gigs, performing in bands and buying music on iTunes (and bandcamp, and independent record shops and all manner of places). Many more kids are doing all of those things and not engaging in YouTube video blogging at all.

3. “The second biggest search engine” – and other ways to explain what YouTube is for

I don’t have the data to hand to check where we are with this, it may not be still, but out there in the real world people tell you that YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world. Even if it’s no longer true, it’s a useful enough aphorism which gets people thinking when they first hear it.

For many people YouTube is the first port of call for a search, especially if it’s a video search. For that reason YouTube is a valuable place to put good content if you want people to engage with your ideas. At this point it’s worth stopping to think about what YouTube is for, and how people use it. We can easily think of YouTube as:

  • a search engine
  • a content discovery platform (through suggestions based on your profile and the profile of people who watch and like what you like)
  • a social network centred on video content (there are communities within the site, networks of friends, communities of practice, etc.)
  • a primary channel for watching video content (especially through subscriptions to certain producer’s content channels)
  • a video streaming service (a lot of web users place videos on YouTube with no intention of engaging with people on the YouTube website – they just want reliable hosting of video files that they can embed elsewhere)
  • a way of gauging popularity (YouTube hits are a media shorthand for popularity – we only need to consider Gangnam Style here)

4. Memes

YouTube is central to many internet memes. From Rick Rolling to Keyboard Cat, YouTube provides a stable repository for the shareable content at the heart of many call and response or bait and switch jokes. YouTube’s ability to soak up traffic is particularly important here – would Leave Britney Alone or the Star Wars kid have managed to stay up and running for long had they been hosted on a cheap personal grade server package? Doubtful. The video owner’s bandwidth charges would also have gone through the roof, making it hard to sustain the content for long.

In addition to stability, YouTube also offered simplicity. Uploading streaming video used to be the sort of thing that only web designers did: you’d need to know a bit about code and file formats, you’d need a web server and a website to actually embed the video into; YouTube offered a simple way to upload, and simple ways to share the content including a webpage for the video on the YouTube website. That meant that, amongst other things, people could easily offer up their own take on memes, giving rise to the sort of phenomenon you see with the Harlem Shake or Hitler Reacts which add fresh twists to an original idea, mutating and spreading the meme further.

5. Business models

OK it wasn’t the first, but YouTube was one of the big early splashes of the second dot com bubble. Alongside other early successes such as Flickr, YouTube has contributed to a commercial culture that is predicated on romantic story: that groups of friends can get together and put together million (and billion) dollar technology companies in their bedrooms. Of course, this story occurs throughout innovation history, but in its current telling the innovation doesn’t need to make money, it just needs to wait to be bought by a bigger fish, and hope it can keep attracting enough rounds of venture capital to stay afloat until then.

YouTube was started by a group of friends, and it was bought (for $1.65 billion) by a bigger fish. I was interested to read that its founders have distanced themselves from the more romantic elements of their own genesis story, stating that it makes for good marketing copy but isn’t strictly true. Of course we should also remember that they were already known and working on the ground in Silicone Valley – the technology was important, but the networks are part of the story too and we should all think about that before we bet the farm on our own start up ideas.

Jon Hickman, Senior Lecturer in New Media at Birmingham City University. This post is crossposted with permission.

The first YouTube clip is eight years old this week. Photograph: Getty Images
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war