Here's help for non-digital natives who wonder what this online video phenomenon is all about and why it's so compelling to online kids.
by Anne Collier
If you want to understand…
* who digital natives are and what they're doing online
* how community is experiencing a rebirth online
* how identity-exploration can be a collective experience and how that can be therapeutic
* and maybe even why YouTube is the No. 1 site among 2-to-11-year-olds for video viewing (see this)
…pour yourself a tall glass of iced tea or something and watch "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube," presented by Kansas State University anthropology Prof. Michael Wesch's last month at the US Library of Congress. Just click on the title, then hit the little "Play" button in the middle of the picture of the two tiny brothers, and I suspect you'll find – as I did – that you'll actually enjoy becoming more digitally enlightened in this way. I guarantee that, if you have kids and they're online, they'll appreciate your taking the time.
If you want to know a little more before you invest the 55.5 minutes, here are some highlights:
* Why YouTube? It's a force and a fixture in many people's lives worldwide. If the 3 major TV networks broadcasted 24 hours a day, every day for the 60 years they've been broadcasting, they would've produced 1.5 million hours of programming. YouTube has published more than that in the last six months, Dr. Wesch said. People post 9,000 hours of video a day (another way to say it: 200,000 three-minute videos a day) – most of them meant for fewer than 100 viewers.
* Linking what? The Web is increasingly about "linking people, not information."
* Not trivial. The experimentation with video, identity, and collaboration going on in YouTube is courageous ("your bedroom as the most public place on the planet") – with many unknowns, including audience and what happens to one's very personal work and exploration. It's also global. Note the hero of "Free Hugs" worldwide at 35:35 minutes into Wesch's talk.
* Not isolating. "New forms of community" have developed in this global video-sharing, and with them "new forms of self-understanding," Wesch said.
* Ok to stare. Yes, viewing some of self-exploration videos seems a little voyeuristic, and there are some cruel comments and reactions, but this also happens: people experiencing "a profound, deep connection" free of social anxiety and other constraints of "connecting" in "real life" – because they can stare at the person in the video, study his face while he's talking on camera, while he's taking that leap of faith in humanity by putting himself out there.
* Sexy images. Very often the sexy titles and screen shots (called "flash frames") that present videos are not what parents and other newcomers think (they're not presenting x-rated videos). They're about serious or funny completely innocuous videos. Representing them in a "sexy" way is a way of gaming the system. Their creators are just trying to get their videos noticed and watched so they'll rise to the top of the list (YouTube's home page) and so get noticed even more so they'll become famous or they'll raise awareness for their cause.
* "Era of prohibitions." Don't miss Stanford Prof. Laurence Lessig's message (at about 46:15 min. in) about the impact on youth of knowing that remixing media, a way of life for them, is technically illegal in this "era of prohibitions": "That realization is extraordinarily corrosive, extraordinarily corrupting," Lessig said. We can't stop our kids from playing with digital media, he said, we can only send them underground, where we can't learn about what they're doing. Parent and Prof. Liz Lawley at the Rochester Institute of Technology echoes this below (in "Social networkers want more privacy options").
This is the kind of presentation that recharges, nourishes, keeps you going and going and going as you try – in the area of youth online safety – to maintain a balance of three needs: to alert parents to the risks that do exist, to mitigate fears and encourage (when "be very afraid" is so often the message to parents), and to communicate all the good, important growth and learning that's going on as young people use media that so many adults don't really understand.
* "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube," the talk he gave at the Library of Congress, June 2008
* MediatedCultures.net, Professor Wesch's site (blog, bio, video portfolio, and intro to his students) – "Reasons Why We Tube" may answer more questions you have, as it explores and summarizes the 370 video responses Wesch's class got to "Why do you tube?"
* The Wired Campus column about Wesch in the Chronicle of Higher Education
* Author, tech-publishing entrepreneur, and pundit John Battelle's interview with Michael Wesch
* Two resources Dr. Wesch recommended at the end of his Library of Congress talk: 1) AnthroVlog, the digital video research blog of Dr. Patricia Lange at the University of Southern California, and her paper, "Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube" and 2) the work of MIT graduate student Kevin Driscoll, particularly "Thanx 4 Da Add: How Soulja Boy Hacked Mainstream Music" and got a major-label contract from a base in MySpace.com.
* Two stories show YouTubers' rants can go only so far. 1) Trying to be funny, maybe, a frequent YouTube ranter known as "Trashman" was arrested by federal agents this week for claiming to have told "Gerber employees to lace baby food with cyanide," CNET reports. 2) In "Wife's rant on YouTube falls foul of judge," The Guardian reports that "a British actor who took her battle against her millionaire husband to the internet, posting videos that lambasted him on YouTube and gained an audience of millions," was ordered to leave her New York home by a judge who ruled her behaviour was 'spousal abuse'."