YouTube is remarkable for one particular reason. Apart from providing a medium for sharing online videos via a social networking platform, the website has also been credited for promoting participatory culture in this age of social media and global connectivity. Google has certainly done a great job in making YouTube as one of the most important cultural artefacts of the 21st century.
Of course, as a cultural artefact, the video-sharing website easily describes the culture of its users. A simple analysis would bring forth an understanding that YouTube represents not only the popularity of information age and the influence of new media but also the emergence of a participatory culture in the Internet age.
Participatory culture is an interesting phenomenon. By definition, it is a 21st century neologism that describes a culture in which private individuals and the collective public directly participates in creation or production. This is contrary to a consumer culture in which the individuals and the public largely act as mere consumers.
The social and cultural impact of YouTube
Researcher C. Chau describes YouTube as a website that combines media production and distribution with social networking features, making it an ideal medium for creating, connecting, collaborating, and circulating. The website nonetheless encourages users to become media creators and communicators or become influencers, thus removing the exclusivity of these sociocultural functions from mainstream media organisations and established personalities. By all accounts, the social and cultural impact of YouTube centres on the utilities and benefits it provide to individuals and the public—utilities and benefits that positioned YouTube as instrumental in promoting a participatory culture.
Since gracing the Internet in 2005 and after the acquisition of Google in 2006, YouTube has been responsible for further promoting online and citizen journalism, introducing independent content creators, and launching the careers of Internet celebrities. This is an interesting accomplishment considering that its original founders, Chad Hurley, Steven Chen, and Jawed Karim—former PayPal employees—initially envisioned a video-sharing platform that would resemble some elements of conventional online dating services.
Perhaps, one of the most notable accomplishment of YouTube is the role it played in launching the career of Canadian pop superstar Justin Bieber. As narrated in the article of Jan Hoffman from The New York Times, Scooter Braun, a former marketing executive of a record label, discovered Bieber by accident in 2007 while browsing through YouTube videos in search for random singers. Impressed with what he saw and heard, Braun took a chance.
Raymond Braun Media Group, a joint venture between Braun and Usher, signed Bieber and since then, his carer took off to stratospheric heights. Today, the singer is one of the most popular recoding artists and concert performers in the world, with record-breaking albums sales, sold out concert tours, and a legion of fans.
The British pop act One Direction, dubbed as the biggest boy band in the world, also took advantage of YouTube and social networking sites when they were starting. During their stint at the X-Factor UK and after finishing third place in the finals, members of the boy band rolled out a series of videos that showcased their random antics, interviews, and day-in-life facts. It is safe to say that these videos were partly instrumental in building the massive fan base of One Direction and in introducing them outside Britain.
There are several independent artists and performers that are using YouTube to promote their works. Cover artists such as Boyce Avenue and Sam Tsui literally build their careers on the video-sharing platform. But beyond introducing pop stars and other Internet celebrities, YouTube has also been attributed for social and political movements.
Sociologist Philip N. Howard, in his article published by the Pacific Standard, said YouTube was instrumental in promoting the popular uprising Arab Spring in 2010 because it served as a medium for telling the world, thus supplementing how protesters used Facebook to schedule their activities and Twitter to coordinate and recruit members.
Dr. Emily Vraga et al mentioned that social networking sites such as YouTube provide activists or progressives with opportunities to reach out to new audiences through several appeals. In their study that compared the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the “Proposition 8” gay rights initiatives, the researchers concluded that online social activism should suit movement needs. This is possible using social media because related websites or online services provide a flexible venue for activism.
Demonstrated challenges in participatory culture
However, the fact that YouTube is a collaborative medium creates several problems. This characteristic even displays the dangers of participatory culture. For instance, the study of Jennifer Keelan, Vera Pavri-Garcia, George Tomlinson, and Kumanan Wilson involving a content analysis of 153 YouTube videos about vaccination and immunisation revealed that the popular video-sharing website is a breeding ground for anti-vaccination views. In other words, a considerable amount of videos contradicts the best scientific evidence supporting vaccination. This is troubling considering that the website is also a popular medium for acquiring simple health-related information.
The letter to the editor by Maria Stamelou et al argued that YouTube videos can inaccurately depict Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. This is alarming for researchers, as well as healthcare providers and patients. Accordingly, these inaccurate videos can promote self-diagnosis and wrong diagnosis. To make things worse, some of these videos provide suggested therapies.
There are more studies and other articles describing the perils that come from acquiring information from the Internet, especially from social networking sites such as YouTube. Because these venues are open-access and collaborative, sharing of irrelevant and ill-informed contents is not a possibility but a reality. Furthermore, because these websites promote participatory culture, individuals or organisations with harmful motivations can readily exploit these venues.
In a nutshell, YouTube and of course, other social networking sites indeed promote participatory culture. They provide individuals and the collective public with an opportunity to create and distribute contents, or collaborate and network with peers and like-minded online users. YouTube has been instrumental in content creations and in challenging the position of mainstream media or established personalities, as well as in promoting causes or supporting social activism. The social and cultural impact of YouTube is undeniable, especially because of its direct influence in promoting participatory culture. However, it is also instrumental in creating misleading or poor quality contents with a potential of causing harm. Thus, in a participatory culture, good intentions compete with bad intentions.
Further details of the research of Chau are in the article “YouTube as a participatory culture” published in 2010 in the journal New Directions for Youth Movement. The article “Justin Bieber is living the dream” by Hoffman appeared on The New York Times. More details of the article of Howard are in the article “The Arab’s Spring cascading effect” published in the Pacific Standard. Further details of the study of Vraga et al are in the article “The rules of engagement: Comparing two social protests movements on YouTube” published in 2014 in the journal Cyberspace, Behaviour, and Social Networking.
More details of the study of Keelan et al are in the article “YouTube as a source of information on immunization: A content analysis” published in 2007 in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Details of the study of Stamelou et al are in the article “Movement disorders on YouTube” published in 2011 in The New England Journal of Medicine.