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
Photo: Getty
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This is no time for civility towards Republicans – even John McCain

Appeals for compassion towards the cancer-stricken senator downplay the damage he and his party are doing on healthcare.

If it passes, the Republican health care bill currently being debated in the Senate will kill people. Over the past few months, the party has made several attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed under Obama, all of which share one key feature: they leave millions more people without healthcare.

Data indicates that every year, one in every 830 Americans who lack healthcare insurance will die unnecessarily. A report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the newest “skinny repeal” plan will leave an extra 16 million individuals uninsured. That’s an estimated annual body count of 19,277. Many more will be forced to live with treatable painful, chronic and debilitating conditions. Some will develop preventable but permanent disabilities and disfigurements - losing their sight, hearing or use of limbs.

This is upsetting to think about as an observer - thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in a country that has had universal, free at the point of delivery healthcare for almost seven decades. It is monstrously, unfathomably traumatic if you’re one of the millions of Americans who stand to be affected. If you’ve got loved ones who stand to be affected. If you’ve got an ongoing health condition and have no idea how you’ll afford treatment if this bill passes.

I’ve got friends who’re in this situation. They’re petrified, furious and increasingly exhausted. This process has been going on for months. Repeatedly, people have been forced to phone their elected representatives and beg for their lives. There is absolutely no ambiguity about consequences of the legislation. Every senator who supports the health care bill does so in the knowledge it will cost tens of thousands of lives - and having taken calls from its terrified potential victims.

They consider this justifiable because it will enable them to cut taxes for the rich. This might sound like an over simplistic or hyperbolic assertion, but it’s factually true. Past versions of the bill have included tax cuts for healthcare corporations and for individuals with incomes over $200,000 per year, or married couples making over $250,000. The current “skinny repeal” plan has dropped some of these changes, but does remove the employer mandate - which requires medium and large businesses to provide affordable health insurance for 95 per cent full-time employees.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain took time out from state-funded brain cancer treatment to vote to aid a bill that will deny that same medical care to millions of poorer citizens. In response, ordinary US citizens cursed and insulted him and in some cases wished him dead. This backlash provoked a backlash of its own, with commentators in both the UK and US bemoaning the lack of civility in contemporary discourse. The conflict revealed a fundamental divide in the way we understand politics, cause and effect, and moral culpability.

Over 170 years ago, Engels coined the term “social murder” to describe the process by which societies place poor people in conditions which ensure “they inevitably meet a too early… death”. Morally, it’s hard to see what distinguishes voting to pass a healthcare bill you know will kill tens of thousands from shooting someone and stealing their wallet. The only difference seems to be scale and the number of steps involved. It’s not necessary to wield the weapon yourself to have blood on your hands.

In normal murder cases, few people would even begin to argue that killers deserve to be treated with respect. Most us would avoid lecturing victims’ on politeness and calm, rational debate, and would recognise any anger and hate they feel towards the perpetrator as legitimate emotion. We’d accept the existence of moral rights and wrongs. Even if we feel that two wrongs don’t make a right, we’d understand that when one wrong is vastly more abhorrent and consequential than the other, it should be the focus of our condemnation. Certainly, we wouldn’t pompously insist that a person who willingly took another’s life is “wrong, not evil”.

Knowing the sheer, frantic terror many of my friends in the US are currently experiencing, I’ve found it sickening to watch them be scolded about politeness by individuals with no skin in the game. If it’s not you our your family at risk, it’s far easier to remain cool and detached. Approaching policy debates as an intellectual exercise isn’t evidence of moral superiority - it’s a function of privilege.

Increasingly, I’m coming round to the idea that incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary. Senators voted 51-50 in favour of debating a bill that will strip healthcare from millions of people. It’s unpleasant to wish that John McCain was dead—but is it illegitimate to note that, had he been unable to vote, legislation that will kill tens of thousands of others might have been blocked? Crude, visceral language can be a way to force people to acknowledge that this isn’t simply an abstract debate—it’s a matter of life and death.

As Democratic congressman Keith Ellison has argued, merely resisting efforts to cut healthcare isn’t enough. Millions of Americans already lack health insurance and tens of thousands die every year as a result. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but the coalition of resistance that has been built to defend it must also push further, for universal coverage. Righteous anger is necessary fuel for that fight.