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Does YouTube Have a Role to Play in Society?

Have you ever heard of a man by the name of Henry Jenkins?  If this was the first time that you have ever heard that name mentioned, then I can only assume that you have been living under a rock up until this point. Do not fret however, because I will enlighten you on who exactly Henry Jenkins is!

First and foremost, Jenkins is currently the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.  He is also the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory CultureHop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.

Now, you may be asking yourself that while these credentials and achievements are rather impressive, why is Jenkins so pertinent to this post?  The answer is simple- he wrote a blog titled Nine Propositions Towards a Cultural Theory of YouTube that talked about the place of YouTube in contemporary culture.  Many of the ideas Jenkins mentioned might be familiar to some individuals, but I think you might find them interesting distilled down in this blog post.

The first idea Jenkins discusses is the fact that YouTube represents the kind of hybrid media space described by Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks — a space where commercial, amateur, nonprofit, governmental, educational, and activist content co-exists and interacts in ever more complex ways.  Jenkins puts this revelation rather bluntly when he compares this coexistence by exclaiming, “…it potentially represents a site of conflict and renegotiation between different forms of power.”  One interesting illustration of this is the emergence of Astroturf – fake grassroots media — through which very powerful groups attempt to mask themselves as powerless in order to gain greater credibility within participatory culture.

He goes on to say that YouTube has emerged as the meeting point between a range of different grassroots communities involved in the production and circulation of media content.  Jenkins proclaims that much that is written about YouTube implies that the availability of Web 2.0 technologies has enabled the growth of participatory cultures.  I would argue that it was the emergence of participatory cultures of all kinds over the past several decades that has paved the way for the early embrace, quick adoption, and diverse use of platforms like YouTube.  However, I feel that Jenkins overall view of YouTube and its placement in our society is rather unique.  He describes it by saying that, “as these various fan communities, brand communities, and subcultures come together through this common portal, they are learning techniques and practices from each other, accelerating innovation within and across these different communities of practice.”

Jenkins also believes that YouTube represents a site where amateur curators assess the value of commercial content and re-present it for various niche communities of consumers.  YouTube participants respond to the endless flow and multiple channels of mass media by making selections, choosing meaningful moments which then get added to a shared archive.  Because of this, we are ironically finding clips that gain greater visibility through YouTube than they achieved via the broadcast and cable channels from which they originated.

A classic example of this might be the Colbert appearance at the Washington Press Club Dinner.  The media companies are uncertain how to deal with the curatorial functions of YouTube: seeing it as a form of viral marketing on some occasions and a threat to their control over their intellectual property on others.  We can see this when Colbert and his staff encourage fans to remix his content the same week that Viacom seeks legal action to have Colbert clips removed from YouTube

Another idea that is proposed is the exact value of YouTube.  Jenkins declares that YouTube’s value depends heavily upon its deployment via other social networking sites — with content gaining much greater visibility and circulation when promoted via blogs, Live Journal, MySpace, and the like.  While some people come and surf YouTube, its real breakthrough came in making it easy for people to spread its content across the web. Interestingly, YouTube represents a shift away from an era of stickiness (where the goal was to attract and hold spectators on your site, like a roach motel) and towards an era where the highest value is in spreadability (a term which emphasizes the active agency of consumers in creating value and heightening awareness through their circulation of media content.)

Regardless, Jenkins proposes that in the age of YouTube, social networking emerges as one of the important social skills and cultural competencies that young people need to acquire if they are going to become meaningful participants in the culture around them.  This is the complete opposite of what many others have to say about the youth and their constant involvement with social media.  We need to be concerned with the participation gap as much as we are concerned with the digital divide.  I believe that Jenkins is on to something here, however.

There are many ‘YouTube Celebrities’ that actually earn a living through subscriptions to their videos.  For example, one of the largest subscriptions that has a continued fan base is that of makeup artists.  One of the most popular makeup artists, and one that my wife follows, goes by the username MakeupByTiffanyD

I think the most interesting factoid Jenkins mentioned, was how YouTube seemingly embodies a particular opportunity for translating participatory culture into civic engagement.  The ways that Apple’s “1984″ advertisement was appropriated and deployed by supporters of Obama and Clinton as part of the political debate suggests how central YouTube may become in the next presidential campaign.  

Can you imagine YouTube playing a role in a presidential campaign?  The idea itself is not all that ludicrous.  In fact, if it is as influential as Jenkins suggest, than maybe YouTube could play a part in Obama’s impeachment.  Wouldn’t that be great?

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