Digital Ethnography

YouTube and the Quest for Audience

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Reposted from Anthropology News

Contributing Editors
Nathalie Boucher and Martin Lamotte

An anthropological introduction to YouTube is a 40-minute YouTube video of a presentation by Michael Wesch of Kansas State University. The presentation, given at the Library of Congress in 2008, provides an overview of two years of research on the famous platform. On his Digital Ethnography website, he writes, “Our work explores how humans use media, how media uses us, and how we can use new media to reveal our insights in new ways.”

This is where Wesch’s work got our interest. We took an interest in the great work done by Michael Wesch and his team in terms of exploring how people use, discuss, interact with, and present themselves to the world through their small webcams. But we followed the “how we can use new media” thread more closely.

In his Library of Congress presentation, Wesch (at 12:16 and at 19:15) explains how his team started participant observation by broadcasting themselves. First, the research team and objectives were introduced to the vloggers (video-bloggers) in a dynamic and friendly video. Second, the students working for Wesch started their own online journals, exploring self-presentation, discussion with an imaginary audience through the webcam, and sharing ideas and personal stories in a communicative manner. Wesch and his team look very comfortable, hip, friendly, and fun. They present themselves as the guys that will be doing exactly the same thing that other vloggers do on YouTube: talking, sharing, discussing, arguing, laughing, feeling shy or angry, but above all, being a member of this online and borderless community.

We were amazed. Should anthropologists remain in their role as ethnographers observing from a dark background, or take advantage of the multimedia technology for self-presentation? This question opened many avenues of reflection, and we found some inspiration in Holaday’s Self-presentation to Majority Others – Toward Media Anthropology. This rare text was written circa 1991 and offers a reflection around self-presentation and reflexivity influenced by postmodern critics.

First of all, Wesch’s team introduction reflects his idea of what YouTube is: “new forms of expression and new forms of community and new forms of identity emerging.” The work team’s introduction is inviting and participative, and the team itself is young and communicative. The way the presentation is done bears its share of assumptions, if not preconceptions, about who is observed and what the research subject is. Don’t we introduce ourselves and project an image of our project that corresponds to the subject? This certainly shows the bias coming from the way we see our research topics, the way we are trained to practice anthropology.

It might not only be an issue of self-presentation/subject-assumption. As Holaday wrote, “The impulse to use the medium … originates from a frustration with the constraints imposed by existing channels of communication” (c. 1991: 13). The need to communicate as anthropologists implies an exchange with the “natives” during the research, and afterwards when the results are in hand. YouTube and other multimedia platforms lift the veil on the linear relationship with the audience. By audience, we mean the people that listen to and/or look at our work. More often, the audience is composed of our scientific peers. The question of the return to the participants is always difficult. How do we give back to the community we studied? Is our 500-page book, filled with theoretical concepts and complex language, going to be welcomed, read, and discussed?

Now with YouTube, at least the way Wesch and his team have used it, the audience is the people studied and the relationship is developed and maintained as the study progresses. Furthermore, their reaction to the team’s experience and involvement in YouTube is expected and followed, and may open to a back-and-forth dialogue with the researchers as the research unfolds. The audience is no longer the person in front of you and your notebook. The audience actually participates in the research. If the people we study use Internet more and more, and send videos on YouTube, we see this platform as a place to confront ideas, return research results, and established a dialogue. Wesch’s Youtube video was viewed 1,763,227 times. Is ivory tower isolation starting to be overridden?

Without any doubt, the exposure YouTube can give to ideas and recent discoveries in anthropology is tremendous. It is a way to reach out to a larger audience. Furthermore, it is a tool for communicating effectively with the people we study. It can certainly push back the limits of the participative process. It can be used as a research strategy developed to have a different exchange with the participants.

Very few other videos on anthropology, if any, aim to reach out to the “natives.” A first glance shows that many YouTube videos on anthropology aim to answer the questions, “What is anthropology?” and “What to do with a degree in anthropology?”! By using YouTube for self-presentation, Wesch presents his project as much as he participates in the definition of anthropology… that is, in a very effective and modern way (although 2008 is quite old in the Internet age). One of the comments following Wesch Anthropological introduction to YouTube posted a month ago from Cookiies4Kieran sums up this new relationship with the audience:

“I love the fact that wether [sic] we like it or not, or better put ‘wether [sic] we know it or not’, we are a part of an international, interemotional and integrating system. But who is studying everyone [sic]? That’s the beauty. We are not being studied by anyone, but we are studying ourselves. It is an amazing system of theories and use.”

Are we ready for such a turnaround?

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Our work explores how humans use media, how media uses us, and how we can use new media to reveal our insights in new ways.

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