The Bulletin of Videos: Two Major Functions of YouTube

Yiran Sun

YouTube at this point is by far the most dominant video hosting site on the Internet—Yet it is a young brand of only eight years old. What has brought it to the status today? Obviously this is not the power of just one single artifact. What really lies behind that black-white-red logo?

Physically, a major contributor is the collaboration of server farms. With servers all across the globe, users of YouTube have no trouble accessing the site’s vast content from all parts of the world. Above this tangible infrastructure, there is of course the Internet, running on shared protocols that enable packets of information to be sent back and forth in milliseconds. Then in that there is the technology of digitizing video content, which is then based on the juxtaposition of numerous still images through the frame of time. The list can go on and on, but of course, these are never solely physical, for in every stage there is heavy human and cultural involvement. The material side alone would never fully account for the power of YouTube. So what lies beneath the materiality of YouTube?

The website, just as any other form of medium, mediates social functions that are already constructed and in place before the artifact is present. Two of the most essential functions of YouTube are the video function and the bulletin function.

The video function can be seen in our society from the magic lantern to the film and television, all based on human’s perception of images and time. This is also where the second half name of the website came from: the “tube” used to refer to the television, which materially used to be based on cathode ray tubes (CRTs). This concept then sprout from its material form and sunk its root into the cultural reservoir, where now it’s still being used in a similar sense even as today one can only fine a tube television in a museum setting.

Throughout their years in people’s lives, film and television have established a consensus that videos can both be used as pure entertainment or strict indexes to reality, with culturally-shared cues and codes leading up to each. These same roles of videos are also seen in the content and use of YouTube. But YouTube does not only inherit from its milieu: It influences its environment as well. While advancements in printing have helped to establish the reign of news photography as the synonym of truthfulness, photo-editing techniques, the popularization of programs like Adobe Photoshop, and television news in video forms have brought us into the paradigm that only videos serve to prove legitimacy and trustworthiness of pieces of news. In fact, videos have become a way of how we make sense of the world. Yet with the popularization of video making and editing, with democratized channels like YouTube, and interestingly with mainstream television picking up videos from these online sources, this video-centric paradigm of news may again be moving on to a new stage not yet clearly pictured. This chain of change can be interpreted as a shift of authority, and although this shift here is heavily reliant on the materiality of technologies themselves, the institutional Function of authority has always been, and will always be there.

Then let us look at the other half of the website’s name: you. This word is among the most often used terms in the English language, usually to refer to the person being directly addressed. Here however, it serves to emphasize the “sharing” property of the website, to stress its democracy: The website’s contents belong to “you”, the ordinary users, instead of some professional producers or authorities. Now this seems like a really democratic idea, but how democratic is it? (And of course, by its definition, “democracy” would be the “rule/power” of “people”, at the time meant non-slave adult land-owning male citizens with leisure and access to the assembly, and now, Internet-literate people with leisure and access to the Internet.) Since democracy is not anarchy, people participating in it play by the rules. This is what I would call the bulletin function, in the sense of modern bulletin boards (compared to the ancient newspaper-ly meaning from the Acta Diurna of the Romans). This is a public space where people can put up their messages and where messages can be taken off by regulators when deemed inappropriate. Before YouTube, this function has been exercised in the classified ads section in newspapers, in the university hall corkboards, and in the online bulletin board systems (BBS): Someone puts up some message, the regulator checks if it’s appropriate, especially when someone else protests against it, and then takes it off if it indeed violates the rules (For YouTube: copyright laws (realized through the Content ID technology) and social conventions).

The two above-mentioned functions are just a tip of an iceberg of the institutional settings behind the website. The power of YouTube lies in the people using it, but more fundamentally, lies in the ways its users have been trained to make sense of the world. When such power is realized through this medium/artifact, it then serves to influence the institutions it has been built upon: Many people have now come to understand the world through the YouTube paradigm where news or entertainment are mediated via videos that can be accessed anywhere at any time, and preferably shorter than 15 minutes; and this is definitely not the only feat of the video sharing website.