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
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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.