The Multiplicity of YouTube

Defining YouTube has been problematic for scholars, resulting in a variety of contexts in which academics write about the website. Is YouTube a “platform, an archive, a library, a laboratory, a medium” (Snickers & Vonderau, 2009)? Is it a “complex parasitical media” (Mitchem, 2008) or rather “networked individualism” (Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 2002)? Some see YouTube as a digital bard (Hartley, 2009), storyteller (Ryan, 2006), or a modern day myth-maker (Mosco, 2005). Yet, there seems to be a troubling trend in research which confines YouTube into a box that can be easily consumed and considered. Limiting discussion of YouTube to inclusions of Web 2.0 or a singular point of remix or participatory culture is a deleterious endeavor.

The history of YouTube is well documented and oft-cited. Founded by former employees of web-based financial PayPal, Chad Harley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim officially launched YouTube with little to no fanfare in June 2005. “The website provided a very simple, integrated interface without high levels of technological knowledge, and within the technological constraints of standard browser software relatively modest bandwidth” (Burgess & Green, 2009, p. 1). There were a number of other video and file-sharing websites competing at that time, but as Burgess and Green suggest, the simplicity of YouTube’s design and its relative ease of use made it stand out in an otherwise crowded field. A number of scholars have argued that this openness has ultimately fed YouTube’s success, a “hybrid model of engagement” driven by consumer-citizens experiencing the site in a variety of ways. “From an audience point of view, is it a platform that provides access to culture, on a platform that enables consumers to participate as producers?” (Burgess & Green, 2009, p. 14). Kavoori (2011) adds “I suggest that we see YouTube as much more than a website – it is a key element in the way we think about our online experience and (shared) digital culture” (p. 3).

In an interview, Jawid Karim attributed the early success of YouTube to four essential properties: video recommendations via the ‘related videos’ list, an email link to enable video sharing, comments (and other social networking functionality), and an embeddable video player (Gannes, 2006). YouTube then becomes the logical destination for many users and their expressions of remix culture.

Fagerjord (2010) calls YouTube a remix in itself: “You might call the site a clever remix of a video gallery, a blog-like commenting system, a system of friends and connections as in a social network site such as LinkedIn and a file-sharing site or network” (p. 195). But Halbert (2009) argues that video remixes constitute a different logic than that of commercial production, whereby professionals create artistic content that is then distributed to the masses. The logic of remix, Halbert argues, does not rely on the motive of profit, but of cultural circulation and provides an alternative to the commercial model, “By using the term “user-generated content,” the structure of the narrative implicitly undermines the value that can be placed on the original work of “users” and implies that professional contributions are somehow superior” (p. 929). Video remix, then, constitutes the creation of original creative content using commercial sources in a way that often undermines or speaks back to the original source. Rather than seeing remixed videos as derivative entertainment, some scholars argue that these products stand as creative works in their own right.

The mash-up above is archetypal YouTube music remix, subverting the previous text, that is The Cosby Show, with its wholesome Huxtables and jazz loving obstetrician, and inserting the salaciousness of the hit of Summer 2013, the sexually charged and overtly over-the-top “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. The remixed text then reads as a deft reordering, the dancing family sniffs of puerile impropriety all while Bill Cosby shimmies with a sly wink and a nod. A battle of the mind commences, was 80’s television so vapid or was the quintessential sitcom really so naughty?

The result of such interplay between consumers and consumers as producers or “produsers” to borrow the term from Bruns (2009) position YouTube as a curator of remix culture, especially interesting when one considers YouTube’s original byline of “Your Digital Video Repository” as opposed to the current iteration, “Broadcast Yourself.” Castells (2000) writes “We live in a new economy, characterized by three fundamental features”: informational, global, and networked. With this understanding, we can view YouTube through a particular lens, as a network of global citizens and individuals sharing and creating new cultural products, all while experiencing and using YouTube in vastly different ways and for vastly different purposes. In the end, there are really multiple YouTubes, as each visitor experiences the site in different ways, i.e. some may use the site for subscription, instantly clicking to their favorite channels, while others use the site as a cultural aggregator, “scanning and sorting through a magazine catalog: when one is flipping through a magazine catalog, the stories, advertisments and images are skimmed through, with attention resting briefly on one or more items” (Kavoori, 2011, p. 8).


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Burgess, J. & Green, J. (2009). YouTube: Online video and participatory culture. Polity, Malden, MA.

Castells, M. (2000, January/March) “Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society,” British Journal of Sociology, 51/1, 5–24.

Fagerjord, Anders. (2010). After convergence: YouTube and remix culture. In J. Hunsinger et al., (Eds.), International handbook of internet research (pp. 187-200), Springer.

Gannes, L. (2009). YouTube changes everything: The online video revolution. In Television Goes Digital (pp. 147-155). Springer New York.

Halbert, D. (2009). Mass culture and the culture of the masses: A manifesto for user-generated rights. Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, 11, 921-961.

Haythornthwaite, C., & Wellman, H. (2002). The Internet in everyday life: An introduction. The Internet in everyday life, 1-41.

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Lessig, Lawrence. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin.

Mitchem, M. (2008). Video social: Complex parasitical media. In G. Lovink & S. Niederer (Eds.), Video vortex reader:  Responses to YouTube (pp. 273-282). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.

Snickers, P., & Vonderau, P. (2009). The YouTube Reader. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden.