Creating and Negotiating Social Networks Through Video Sharing
Posting text comments and video responses to videos enacts Rouse’s (1991) concept of media circuits that illustrates particular social network patterns. For example, an aunt of two boys that I interviewed posted a comment on one of their videos. Living several states away, the boys rarely see her. But by viewing her nephews’ videos and posting comments, she re-affirms her position in a familial social network. When the boys read her posted comments, they complete a media circuit that began with an experience that was encoded in video, displayed, and commented upon by their aunt, who participated from afar. In this case, the media circuit helps maintain a social network that already exists. Media circuits take different forms and not only help maintain, but can also help create connections and negotiate relationship changes, as described below.
While some media circuits support existing social networks that began in-person, other social networks would not exist as such without online media circulation. For example, one YouTube celebrity expanded his network after posting videos for dispersed, unknown others to see. When a YouTube participant posts a video, viewers may “friend” the celebrity or comment on the video to garner the celebrity’s attention. Several interviewees reported that an intelligent comment on their video usually prompted them to examine the commenter’s work. In an environment where friending practices can become liberal, in that some participants routinely automatically accept friendship links, participants often post comments to increase their social visibility and connection to a video maker.
YouTube participants can broaden or limit physical access to their videos and thus create larger or smaller media circuits by using technical features such as limited “friends-only” viewing or strategic tagging. Viewers may locate videos using keywords or “tags” that video makers designate for their videos or write into the video’s title or description. Given the limited capabilities of YouTube’s search features at the time of this research, several interview participants reported that appropriate tagging, titling, and video descriptions were critical for finding relevant videos. Vague or generic tags, such as “cats,” can yield a list of over 200,000 videos, which are difficult to sift through. Manipulation of video descriptions and tagging systems thus becomes crucial for video makers to regulate physical access to their videos. For example, one video maker used his YouTube name as his only tag. Unless one were a close enough friend to know this tag, it would be difficult to find his videos using the tagging system.
In addition to supporting social networks, video-sharing practices helped create new connections and develop social networks. Several interviewees said that they were not friends with their fellow video makers until they began making videos together and distinguishing their videos from other YouTube participants’ work. For instance, despite living in the same dorm, one group of college students only began interacting in a qualitatively meaningful way after an incident that they considered ideal to record for YouTube. In this incident, two boys wrestled in their dorm’s hallway. One was wearing combat gear and the other, a set of medieval armor. Several people filmed the incident, one of whom filmed it to share on YouTube, given its reputation for similar spontaneous and playful videos. The video, referred to here as Ninjas and Knights, was posted on September 30, 2006. Some of the students noted that they did not know each other well prior to the mediated incident. They further said that filming the incident for YouTube encouraged them to meet and interact with each other.
Yeah. We made new friends with the people who filmed us because we’d never met them before. They just came out of their rooms like, “Hey, let’s film this.” So one – two of the guys that were filming became new friends.
Making the video helped launch connections that did not exist prior to the mediated event. The goal was not to make a high-quality video, but rather to encode an interesting, affective experience that they could share. People who do not regularly use YouTube are often critical of the quality of videos on the site. Some participants were dismissive of the standard of other people’s videos. Their objections often related to technical issues (including poor editing, lighting, sound, or some combination) or content (too many videos about people sparring). But critics fail to understand that video quality is not necessarily the determining factor in terms of how videos affect social networks. Rather, creating and circulating video affectively enacts social relationships between those who make and those who view videos. Posting the Ninja video expanded and articulated the network of people interested in participating in the video makers’ experience. For students, identifying one’s college in the video description and tagging system helps other students and alumni locate the video and participate in a larger community of individuals who have similar affinities.
…and we know a lot of other people watch [YouTube] like our friends, and it’s – if we wanted to tell our friends, “Hey, come and watch this,” it’d be a lot easier if we just put it on YouTube instead of sticking it in an email and waiting for the email to get there and waiting for them to open it which would take forever ‘cause the file was so big. So we just put it on YouTube and go the link, sent the link to everyone, and they watched it.
Not all videos target general consumption. Some reaffirm pre-existing social networks by including material intended to appeal to shared affinities between the senders and certain receivers. Similarly, sending so-called viral videos to intimates demonstrates readiness to maintain social associations and bond with recipients. People who post criticisms, expecting a high-bandwidth, high-quality experience, fail to display affinity with the video. They effectively reject a social link to the video maker’s social network members, for whom the video represents an emotional connection point. For example, in the case of the Ninja video, someone posted the comment, “Can I please have my five minutes and seven seconds back?” In an interview, one of the video makers said that he did not know the person who had posted this comment from either his online or offline social networks. Further, he did not appreciate the comment, nor did he feel compelled to interact with the commenter. Thus, by posting a comment that did not display affinity with the video maker, the comment discouraged the video maker from pursuing additional social contact.
Conversely, interviewees reported that people who post comments of affinity or leave thoughtful comments may prompt the video maker to respond to the poster of the comment. Video makers may react to comments by: 1) reading them; 2) posting comments in response to the comments they received on a video; 3) posting a comment or question on the commenter’s video or channel page; 4) extending a friend request to the commenter; or 5) viewing or subscribing to the commenter’s videos. Although further interaction is not guaranteed through comments, interviewees noted that these interactions were often the initial steps in broadening social connections through media circuits.
On YouTube, some participants broadcast extensive information about their identity. Moreover, they craft videos with content that is broadly appealing, and they aggressively promote and disseminate their videos. This can be considered quite public video making and viewing, because all three factors—identity information about the video maker, content relevance, and technical access to videos—are designed to be broadly appealing and widely available. On the private end of the spectrum, video makers may choose to restrict information about their identity in videos, and they may make videos with content that appeals only to a few close friends. They can also restrict access to the videos technically, by using few or cryptic tags or by invoking YouTube’s “friends-only” viewing feature, according to which only members designated as the video maker’s friends may access the video.
Other important categories of participation exist. Participants may share private experiences through video but do so in a “public way,” by revealing personal identity information. This behavior may be characterized as “publicly private,” in that they disclose identity information about themselves. At the same time, they use mechanisms to limit physical access to the videos or to limit understanding of their contents. The first part of this compound expression thus refers to the amount of identity information imparted by video makers. The second part refers to the available physical access to the video and to the interpretative content that may be understood only by the video maker and a few viewers.
Mechanisms that limit access may take technical and social forms. In a video referred to here as Hand Puppets, both the video’s tags and content limit access to it. Theoretically, anyone can view the video and the identity information it contains. A girl’s face intermittently appears on camera and the video’s channel page contains identifying information. Nevertheless, only people who find it can analyze its contents. It also exhibits occasionally uneven audio, which offers another type of physical access barrier. This video was posted on July 8, 2006, and over the course of a year, it garnered only 88 views. The creator’s tagging choices, which include common first names and cryptic abbreviations, complicate casual viewing access. For instance, one abbreviated tag is a reference to the religious convention that the girls attended while making the video. People who attended this convention or who are members of that religious network might use the tag to find other videos in other media circuits with the same tag. In this way, they can try to connect with other members of this social network.
Once they obtain physical access to videos, participants may have numerous interpretations, but these interpretations may not coincide with the girls’ feelings about what is happening in the video or their in-jokes about the people they discuss. The video is filled with inside references and stylistics that are not intended for general YouTube viewership.
What was your story idea?
It was just basically about this guy that I met and myself, and [my friend] kept like messing up our names when we were talking about it. Like she kept calling him James instead of John, which is her brother’s name. And so we decided to just change the names in the movie and such. And then we also talked about some random things that he and I had talked about on the phone and such, and yeah, it just kind of random, spur of the moment sort of things.
Anjin, a youth in his late teens, also uses cryptic tagging practices, such as using only his YouTube name. Unless one knows this name, the video’s title, or words in the video description, it will be impossible to use the tagging and search systems to search for his videos. Only his close friends and family—whether online or offline—are likely to find his videos using the tagging system as it was implemented at the time of this writing. Unlike some other participants, he does not widely promote his videos (such as by posting comments and directing viewers to his videos). Of his nine videos, six of them received fewer than 200 views over periods ranging from five to 11 months. Even though YouTube enables global video sharing, relatively few people view his videos there. With regard to tagging practices, it should be noted that nuances in public and private access to videos are not only based on the video maker’s intent. For instance, one interviewee claimed that she was simply “lazy” about putting up a lot of tags.
Certainly, viewers’ and creators’ interpretations may not coincide. Anjin’s videos contain personal information, including his real name, the places he visits, and his and his friends’ faces. In one video, Anjin and a few friends take a hike. At one point, a young man faces the camera and gives a thumbs-up sign in front of some graffiti, which is difficult to see. Anjin enlarges the graffiti in a graphic and places it next to the youth’s face. The box contains the image of swastika. For many people, a swastika symbolizes Nazis and mass genocide. But as Anjin explains, the incident had a particular meaning for the small network of friends with whom he participated on the hike and with whom he shared the video.
And there was this graffiti there and it had a swastika. And Ben is Jewish, so we’re like; ha-ha, Ben. And he’s like, what. So then the kind of joke was that Ben is Jewish and he’s making this thumbs up at this swastika. There’s some sort of irony there. And, once again, that’s just kind of our odd inbred sense of humor at work, even though it’s actually pretty terrible.
The image has symbolic value to the boys who participated in the nature walk. For the youth, giving a thumbs-up sign to a swastika does not aim to transmit political information but rather creates an affinity among the friends. One of Anjin’s friends later posted a comment on another video in Anjin’s oeuvre. The comment—No Swastika…=(—expresses mock disappointment that the current video contained no swastika. If one has not seen the prior video, the comment’s intertextual meaning is likely to be lost. Even if viewers had seen Anjin’s prior video, they may not understand that the swastika is an affective symbol that refers to humor shared by a small group of friends, rather than genuine disappointment that Anjin does not place swastikas in his videos.
Why did Anjin post the video publicly, given its inside references and symbolism? Although he is aware of the friends-only viewing option, he declined to restrict physical access to his videos. For Anjin and other people interviewed, it was a matter of convenience. Although many people watch YouTube, a number do not have accounts, which are required to “friend” other participants and enable selective viewing. Notably, just as social network site participants have different interpretations of what constitutes a “friend” (boyd, 2006), YouTube participants apply different definitions of what constitutes a “public” video. Despite the fact that YouTube offers potential connections to a large public, some people choose to create less public videos, some of which are not available or interesting to people beyond a few close friends.
…And like I said, I don’t really feel too bad about [the swastika video] because I don’t, like, display it super publicly. I guess people could stumble onto it randomly but nobody has given me a hard time about it yet.
Within Anjin’s YouTube oeuvre, fractalized gradations between public and private videos exist. Although he does not consider most of his videos “super public,” since they contain inside references and few people actually watch them on YouTube, some of his videos are “more public” than others. For example, on a martial arts video he used tags that included the name of the martial art. Over a seven-month period, the video garnered over 2,000 views, which is far more than Anjin’s other videos. The martial art is practiced around the world and thus has potentially broad social relevance to other dispersed practitioners. One person posted the comment, “Very cool…if you guys are ever in New York, make sure to stop by our branch. =) Best wishes.” This poster simultaneously invites Anjin into his social network and expresses interest in joining Anjin’s network based on common interest in the video’s content.
YouTube participation may take another hybrid form.3 Being “privately public” means making connections with many other people, while being relatively private with regard to sharing identity information. Participants in this category conceal certain aspects of their identity, while expanding their friend and subscriber base and making videos with widely accessible content. Privately public individuals who were interviewed included YouTube celebrities and non-famous participants who wished to retain some anonymity. For instance, one person did not want his identity revealed, lest it compromise professional credibility with clients and co-workers. Other people cited concerns about safety and the desire to avoid stalkers.
One privately public video, which is referred to here as Vlad The Impaler, showed a mask-wearing monster. “Vlad’s” menacing speech echoes the sentiments of other participants who wish to interact with many people, but in a way that conceals identifying information. The video announces a series of videos that he and his friends intend to make. In this video, Vlad outlines the level of identity that people should expect.
We have a strict rule [governing] our society that there are some things that should never be seen, should never be known, [which is] more for our protection than yours. If people knew that we were doing such things, [we] would be punished, so you’ll never know our real names or our real faces but you will know our entertainment.
In a chat interview, CT, a youth in his mid-teens, said that he created this character with select friends as a secret joke. Although CT is in the costume, another friend provided a narrative voice over, in which his voice was modulated to sound lower. CT made the video after another friend (RJ) “jokingly” told him that he didn’t need CT’s help to make videos. RJ implied that CT’s contribution was technically lacking. In response, CT and some other friends created the “Vlad the Impaler” character. CT’s goal with the “Vlad” films was to become quite popular on YouTube and then reveal himself to his friend RJ, so that RJ would know that he had misjudged CT’s talent.
the first vid was to make it seem like we had no clu what we were doing and i wanted it to [build] up… and when the time came if we had a lot more views than RJ we would [unveil] our selves, but we havent been able to make any videos for them
we were going to make them in a way where we wouldnt have to show our faces
Why [wouldn’t] you show your faces?
well so nobody on youtube, or RJ would [know]
It is rather [surprising] to me that RJ did not notice that video. I scanned through [Vlad’s] subscriber list and it is not that long.
well one day he had seen it
and then he showed it to me that day because we had subscribed to him (he always checks that) and was like hey [CT] look at this noob4
i had to comment on the cool [lighting] effect
CT uses video in a way that articulates two separate social networks to which he belongs. The first includes his friend and video-making partner, RJ. The second includes a group of friends from which RJ is excluded. RJ was not invited to create the “Vlad the Impaler” video, because he had “insulted” CT. Even though the video is “public,” in the sense that anyone using YouTube, including RJ, can view it, RJ did not recognize his own friend in the video and did not associate CT with Vlad. Despite being a close friend of CT’s, RJ cannot access the symbolic meaning of the video that refers to conflict between CT and RJ. In this sense, although public, the “Vlad” video was not interpretable in the same way by all who viewed it. Again, there appears to be a fractalization of the public and private in terms of how CT presents himself in different media circuits that support social connections in varyingly public and private ways. When he makes videos with RJ, he reveals his face, name, and location. Yet when he made the Vlad film, he withheld that information and sought more “privately public” connections to new fans. It should be noted that CT’s intentions do not guarantee identification privacy; RJ’s role in failing to recognize CT was critical for CT’s ruse to work.
Some well-known YouTubers also exhibit this type of privately public participation. A further fractalization of relative public and private behavior appears across different participants within this category in terms of their levels of identity revelation. Examples include MysteryGuitarMan (MGM) and MadV. MGM discloses more personal information than does MadV. For instance, MGM speaks and shows himself on camera, albeit usually behind glasses and often wearing a hat.5 In contrast, MadV wears a Guy Fawkes6 mask, does not disclose much personal information about himself, and never speaks.7
Although MadV’s participation is public, in that a large number of people view his work and have a connection to him (as a YouTube “friend” or subscriber), the person behind the persona does not disclose identity details such as name, location, occupation, age, and gender.8 MadV has maintained relative anonymity, although he said that this is becoming “trickier” as he attains greater popularity and participates in a widening social network on YouTube. MadV interacts with fans while maintaining a mysterious persona in a Guy Fawkes mask, a symbol that appears in many art works such as the vigilante character named “V” in the dystopic film, V for Vendetta. MadV said that he did not adopt the mask to show alliance with this V character. Indeed, MadV does not allow posted comments that suggest that he wishes to overthrow a government. People attempting to enter his YouTube media circuit using these comments are barred from entry both technically and socially, since MadV also deletes such comments from his YouTube pages. These types of negotiations determine whom MadV will allow into his social network.
People may friend or subscribe to MadV because his videos, such as One World, are broadly appealing and popular. People may assume that MadV is aligned with the “One World” movement,9 which promotes a more just global society in which people can access information and make connections worldwide. Instead, MadV said he wished to raise global awareness, a topic that also has wide appeal and interests many. In this video, MadV invites others to “make a statement” and to “make a difference.” He holds up his hand to the camera. On it is written the phrase, “One World.” Many viewers joined this media circuit by posting videos in which they wrote special messages on their hands (thus becoming video makers as well as viewers). Within an eight-month span, One World garnered more than one million views and over 2,000 video responses. At one point, it also held the honor of being the “most responded to video of all time on YouTube.”
MadV encourages broad participation, albeit anonymously, by making videos that potentially concern many people and adopting liberal friending practices. Although MadV connects with many people, he nevertheless allows only certain kinds of comments to be posted on his videos. By refusing to post comments or videos from others who try to guess or knowingly reveal his identity, MadV tries to maintain a degree of privately public participation. He writes people who make such attempts at disclosure out of his YouTube media circuit. By placing a comment of affinity to MadV’s work, a supporter can write him- or herself into a social network in which MadV is the center by showing how MadV is relevant to them. The way in which a participant responds to other participants illustrates different relationship patterns. Examining these patterns reveal particular media circuit topologies. For example, MadV said in an interview that he does not subscribe to other people’s channels or initiate friend requests. In this sense, the media circuit topology that MadV supports is one in which he is the center of a directed social network in which the fans watch and comment on his videos, but he does not engage in these same practices toward fans. His practices are quite different from those that other interviewees reported, in which small, close groups of friends post and watch videos intended for consumption by a limited group. This and the other examples presented above illustrate how by examining participants’ choices with regard to video sharing practices, processes of social network maintenance, delineation, and negotiation are revealed.