An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube by Michael Wesch


An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube Michael Wesch , lecturer and dir. YouTube, July 26, 2008 . , accessed July 17, 2011 .

With almost 1.7 million registered views and 2,200 comments to date, Michael Wesch's (2008) lecture entitled “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube” simultaneously is about and has become a part of the social fabric of YouTube. His ethnographic study of YouTube videos highlights patterns of replication, engagement, and connectivity, spurring for Wesch and his research team a set of questions concerning YouTube's capacity to foster and sustain a sense of “community” online. As Wesch describes, his team bears witness to an emerging platform for dialogue, expressions of self and identity, constructions of meaning, and fostering of relationships. It is not simply that YouTube is a platform for posting examples of “bottom-up creativity” (Burgess and Green 2009) but also that individuals inhabit this mediascape. For the interested ethnographer, Wesch's proclamation “This is us” promises access to aspects of people's everyday lives, uploaded and digitally archived in video format. By posting home movies and vlogs (video blogs) on YouTube, we put some aspect of ourselves out there. By watching these videos, we join the throngs of anonymous viewers with unadulterated permission to stare and see people, as Wesch puts it, “for who they are.”

 The lecture is a 55-minute presentation made to the Library of Congress in June of 2008. Although not traditional fodder for academic review, anthropologists go where the action takes them. Inasmuch as user-generated media captures the quotidian, scholarship is finding new audiences and generating popular debate in these fora as well. As such, this review of Wesch's video lecture will focus on four aspects: YouTube as a research site, YouTube as a platform for self-expression, YouTube's capacity to foster community building, and finally YouTube's role in identity formation.

In describing his research project, Wesch briefly summarizes his approach to digital ethnography. For the participant-observation component, the team uploaded their own vlogs, commented on videos, and posed questions to YouTube users (which in Wesch's lecture are called “YouTubers”) via the users’ YouTube channels. Implicit in Wesch's presentation is the argument that mediascapes, of which YouTube is an example, are significant and important social spaces where anthropologists will find and can interact with “digital natives.”

As a platform for self-expression, Wesch comments: “It's a great place to study self and identity.” Wesch argues that YouTube fosters a hyper self-awareness: people are in a very self-reflexive mood when they are in front of their cameras. Although sometimes self-conscious, users often speak freely, uninhibited in the course of their own monologues. Although Wesch notes that the site fosters dialogue between YouTubers, it is more accurate to describe it as enabling an intersubjective process of storytelling.1 Participants collectively bring private experiences into a public domain, expressed in parallel as they participate in a collective practice of meaning making. As one of the vloggers included in Wesch's data set comments, “I make videos to help me live in the world.”

Wesch emphasizes the participatory nature of the medium. Although so many aspects of modernity have distanced us from each other, such as superstores, roadways, and television, and although face-to-face interactions may be lessening in their frequency, YouTube, like other social-networking sites, fosters new opportunities to connect and link (potentially) billions of users. Wesch proposes that the problem to overcome is that in an increasingly networked society we feel isolated and individualized, and so we long for community and authenticity.

Wesch himself describes the audience as anonymous and physically distant and indicates that rare and ephemeral dialogue is produced, absent from a broader context. Based on Wesch's own reference to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000), I am reminded that to form a community, people must share communal values, feel a sense of belonging, and have strong ties to each other. To identify the creation of strong ties, there must be evidence that those who post videos on YouTube are interested in each other. Signs of interaction and relationship building across YouTube videos are weak at best. Wesch gives viewers examples of commenting, replicating, and responding but no clear signs of strong interconnections and relationship establishment.

Finally, let us consider his point about new forms of identity. In the comments section below Wesch's video link, an anonymous viewer remarks, “Amazing! Makes me proud to be a YouTuber.” Is becoming a “YouTuber” a transformative experience? The limitations of the format restrict Wesch's ability to connect us to a broader literature, but he is strongest when he argues that media mediate rather than change our identities. Wesch is most convincing when he walks us through this landscape and avoids a technologically deterministic argument. Clearly, this is an important social space that warrants further research.