Guest blog: How YouTube Watches Us

Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People
By Michael Strangelove
University of Toronto Press , 265 pages, $29.95

The YouTube video “Ultimate Dog Tease” has jumped from 15 million to 37 million views since the beginning of May 2011. The “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” has hit 67 million views since it was launched on YouTube. These two videos have more followers than some TV shows. They're fun, they're silly and, like YouTube as a medium, they are worth celebrating.

Michael Strangelove is a Communications professor at the University of Ottawa . In his book Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People -- one of the Digital Futures series published by University of Toronto Press – he makes the case that YouTube is worth watching, using in your classrooms and discussing at length.

Commercial media, such as television and film, writes Strangelove, provides entertainment but does not allow for instant feedback, the way YouTube does. That feedback can be in the form of a parallel video, a written comment or a parody that mocks or extends the initial argument. Strangelove says YouTube is not just an archive, but is a social space that is helping us move toward the post-television era. YouTube is moving us away from one-way communications relationships, engaging the audience in ways television executives could never have dreamed possible.

To start with, the YouTube numbers are impressive, as more than a billion videos from YouTube are downloaded daily. Then there is the speed of YouTube'srise to popularity. Launched in June 2005, it was sold to Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion, and makes $16.6 billion in revenues from online search advertising. But, writes Strangelove, it is hardly understood as a medium. Few realize, he says, that YouTube is re-distributing power, as it allows members of society to tell their own stories. Strangelove says this medium is transforming our screen culture in the manner of “who is saying what to whom.”

Sacred ceremonies were once a tradition preserved on home movies by baby boomers but thanks to today's technological innovations, anyone with a cell phone can now make a video. As a result, things we once took for granted such as weddings, can now be viewed, critiqued, parodied, copied or re-interpreted. The “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” shows the bride and groom and their wedding attendants really enjoying their wedding in what has to be described as a break with tradition and re-interpretation of the walk down the aisle.

According to Strangelove, among the most popular parodies on YouTube are those where the footage from the movie ‘Downfall' has been supplemented with superimposed sub-titles, some of which are laugh-out-loud funny. Another video that spawned a series of parodies is Chris Crocker's tearful video rant, “Leave Britney Alone.” Not only is it amusing to watch the meltdown, and then find others in a similar vein, such as “Leave Spongebob Alone” but the 20,000 comments posted about the original show how passionate and candid this generation of “screen-agers” has become.

That's the fun side of YouTube. The serious benefits of YouTube, writes Strangelove, come from the way viewers are “interacting, participating, collaborating and co-producing” videos that speak to each other. Young women, seeking empowerment from dominant views of femininity, can talk to each other through their videos. Voters can encourage others to become further engaged in a democracy. YouTube can provide cross-cultural enlightenment that spans borders, generations and entrenched ideals.

In other words, YouTube needs to be viewed as a revolutionary tool that can tell us about a revolution. And, Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People may inspire a revolution in the way we teach.

Mike Gange teaches Media Studies in Fredericton. This article first appeared on his blog Mr Media's Blog.