How YouTube shapes modern culture

BY CHITRA NARAYANAN| IN Books | 12/02/2018
The platform created celebrities out of virtual nobodies, millionaires out of paupers, and showed that it could shape political propaganda and give rise to movements.
CHITRA NARAYANAN reviews ‘Videocracy’

 

BOOK REVIEW 

 Videocracy
How YouTube is Changing the World…with Double Rainbows, Singing Foxes, and Other Trends We Can’t Stop Watching
Kevin Allocca
Bloomsbury
Rs 499, 335 pages

 

The 3 Vs - Video, voice and visuals - are pretty much going to be the future of communication. But the question is who rules these spaces?  Well, in video, the power is slowly but surely shifting from television channels to internet content channels – YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu.

Of these YouTube’s influence is extraordinary.  The world today spends one billion hours a day on Google’s video sharing platform – far more than Netflix and Facebook Video combined. The stats are mindboggling: Almost 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every single day and the platform gets over 30 million visitors per day.   In the US, YouTube has already surged past television. In India where YouTube’s clout is growing by the day with 180 million monthly active users on mobile devices alone already, it is inevitable one day soon. After Google, it is the second most visited site in the world today.

But YouTube’s power is not just that it attracts so many visitors. It is worth a study for the part it is playing in shaping modern culture. It touches virtually every life today, changing our behavior, creating new habits, and altering lives. With millions of tutorials on every possible subject, it is the classroom of citizens today. The platform has created celebrities out of virtual nobodies, millionaires out of paupers, and has demonstrated it can shape political propaganda and give rise to movements.   

And that’s what this book Videocracy is all about. Written by Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s Head of Culture and Trends, the book is far more than the story of the platform. It is a story of how millions of people uploading content on the platform are creating new trends, new forms of expression. It is a story of how we perceive things and how culture is getting shaped in new ways. It is about the power shift – into the hands of ordinary individuals like you and me who craft content and the psychology of the viewers. Since it is an insider’s account – with access to rich data on the search patterns of users - there is a wealth of insights and analysis. 

The highly readable book begins with the Double Rainbow mentioned on the cover  - a video shot of a freakish natural phenomenon taken by a farmer just outside the Yosemite National Park. He uploads it and the clip garners over 44.2 million views. It’s a shakily shot video. Yet, the reason why it goes viral is the farmer’s ecstatic incoherent reaction – part sobbing, part laughing, and full of crazy exclamations. As Allocca analyses, the honest, spontaneous reaction of somebody sharing a remarkable moment has the power to affect the whole world. The video shows how we are in a new era of creativity that is driven by people who want to share everything from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Allocca then takes us through the creation of the platform – how in 2005 Jawed Karim, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, who were all part of PayPal’s design and architecture team got together to create a video sharing site. The inspiration was the wardrobe malfunction of Janet Jackson as well as the tragic tsunami in India in 2004 which people had clicked many shots of but had no easy way of sharing. Others like Vimeo and Google Video had created sharing sites before, but where YouTube succeeded was in being there at the right time – when cheap broadband had just taken off.  It made eminent sense for Google to buy YouTube - and the $1.65 billion deal has been worth every dollar and more for the search giant.

Writes Allocca: “From the start YouTube’s founders declared to let the people who used the platform define it. “  And what has defined it is an unparalleled diversity of interests and perspectives coming together upending our traditional assumptions of how media works.

"For educators, there are insights on a powerful new learning medium and how they can use this to change lives"

 

There’s lots of interesting takeaways from the book. For the technical minded, there are details on the backend, how video files are created, stored, shared, what constitutes likes, can people rig likes and so on. 

For educators, there are insights on a powerful new learning medium and how they can use this to change lives. For those in showbiz and entertainment - especially the music industry -  there is plenty of stuff on new forms of creation and delivery.  Co-creation between artistes who don't know each other, remixing etc are all the buzzwords of the hour. 

For publishers, there is much to learn on using YouTube as a medium effectively. This is demonstrated through the case study of BuzzFeed. Allocca describes how New York based internet media company BuzzFeed has effectively used YouTube to disrupt things. BuzzFeed uses real time data that the web provides to shape its content and even the content delivery method. How long are people watching videos for? What moves them the most in a video - all this can be gleaned from web data and the content quickly changed to suit viewer tastes. 

It’s fascinating to read how BuzzFeed junked what one would imagine to be the most important element in video creativity – the story!   They felt that trying to “nail a story” could be paralyzing. Hence they focused on creating a series of moments.  “In the explicit abandonment of traditional storytelling, BuzzFeed was codifying what was being demonstrated in less methodical ways all over the web  - that non story content could bring us many of the same values we use to derive from narrative productions,” writes Allocca.

Buzzfeed’s experiments with video also showed it that people hardly tune in to audio on the web (85 per cent of video views on Facebook are with audio off) so they used large on screen text.

In sum, Buzzfeed totally disrupted the way traditional TV production houses created video content. “BuzzFeed's model is fast, it’s unspecialized, it is very measurable, it is inexpensive, it is prolific, and the whole process can feel like a mess,” says Allocca. But it works wonderfully.

"It’s fascinating to read how BuzzFeed junked what one would imagine to be the most important element in video creativity – the story! "

 

For advertisers and marketers too there’s lots to learn from the book.  Allocca admits he is quite obsessed with finding out what, how and why things go viral and from Gangnam Style to “Dear Fat People” to the Ice Bucket Challenge videos he dissects a fair number of viral videos to come up with commonalities. Allocca spends quite a bit of time analysing why the absurd music video Oppa Gangnam Style  created by podgy Korean popstar Psy became such a runaway hit. It not only made Psy a global sensation but also threw K-Pop as a genre into the limelight and many other Korean musicians achieved success as a result. In November 2017, Gangnam Style crossed 3 billion views on YouTube.

Specifically, for advertisers there is a section on unorthodox advertising approaches – Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like is an example.

For those looking for sociological perspectives, there are fascinating nuggets on fads and trends – why are pet videos so popular,  why do people enjoy watching others make train wreck of themselves, etc. Apparently the most searched keyword associated with news anchor is “Fail”. It’s amazing how people really enjoy watching news anchors make fools of themselves and watch embarrassing moments of others. Where platforms like YouTube score is in their ability to get real time data on what people are looking for – consciously or subconsciously – and feed on it.

The back stories and the after stories of some of the viral videos also provide lots of food for thought. Particularly disturbing is the story of Kony 2012 – the film that Jason Russell’s Invisible Children organization made on the guerilla group in Uganda that inducts children as soldiers.  The film showed that “clicktism” is a powerful tool as it led to a resolution by the United States senate. Allocca meets Russel and describes the idea and thought that went into the making of the film. And then the cruel aftermath. Somebody made a counter film on the film which went equally viral and led to Russell having a breakdown.

"The back stories and the after stories of some of the viral videos also provide lots of food for thought"

 

Allocca also discusses the ethics part of open democratic platforms like YouTube. What should people post, and what should they not?  He highlights the dangers of posting everything and everything as these can become objects of oppression. In 2009, it was reported that Iran created a crowdsourced site to identify protestors from videos so that they could be arrested. 

Then there is also the messy copyright issue. Who do the clips belong to – can news publishers pick it up and use it? Also the battle between traditional newsrooms and common people who happen to witness events and report it.

For those in media, this is a must read book as YouTube – an experiment in human expression - has completely disrupted the industry. As Allocca puts it, it’s an extension of our individual tastes and collective psyche. And the scary part is - it is evolving every single minute.

 

 (Chitra Narayanan is an editorial consultant with The Hindu Business Line)

 

 

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