[iDC] YouTube and the other kinds of value [was MySpace staff cuts]

Jean Burgess jean at creativitymachine.net
Fri Jun 26 01:31:27 UTC 2009

My apologies for dashing off too-hasty and ill-considered comments far late
at night, and then not returning to the conversation until now - with a long
and rambling post.

[ By way of a bit more background, I'm a research fellow at the ARC Centre
of Excellence for Creative Industries & Innovation, QUT, Australia. My
background is in music performance, cultural & media studies, and now
Internet research. My own work on user-created content and the emergence of
commercial platforms built around it begins from the question of cultural
participation; especially from the perspective of everyday life and the ways
in which it is lived in and through media consumption and use. And with
Joshua Green I have written about these and other matters in a book called
_YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture_ (Polity, 2009). ]

In response to posts on MySpace staff cuts, costs and the question of profit
by Trebor, Michael, Andreas, danah and others -

I'm grateful to learn so much about the real costs of operating these
services - a much-needed perspective and an area where I don't have much

I have been following the whole conversation where possible and acknowledge
the wonderful work of so many on this list (Julian Kücklich and others
especially) to understand how troubled the distinction between the economic
(the factory) and the cultural (the playground) is in practice. However I do
think that the framing of so-called social media in terms of political
economy continually leads to a kind of cold and abstracted economism (e.g.
"the internet is all about making money" vs. "the internet is all about
competition for attention"). This is noticeable to me in terms of how
"value" (and the meaning of work) are being construed; trapping us in purely
industrial rather than cultural logics most of the time, and frequently
individualising, even de-humanising participation ("users").

I think it would be good if we could consider the multiple forms of cultural
and public value generated as a largely unintended consequence of the
uncoordinated, collective use of these platforms, without being accused of
being "celebratory". For me, this focus leads to different kinds of
critiques of the political issues surrounding commercial platforms for
cultural participation. For example, what if the very monopolistic
tendencies of YT/Google are a driver of broader and more diverse cultural
participation - again, this would be counter-intuitive if it were true (and
it might be). 

To save time and because I've put it better elsewhere, I have pasted in
below a small chunk out of the conclusion to a piece of mine called
"User-Created Content and Everyday Cultural Practice: Lessons from YouTube"
, forthcoming in the collection _TV as Digital Media_, eds James Bennett and
Nikki Strange (Duke, 2009), which covers some of these issues.

" [...]

YouTube is generating public and civic value as an unintended and often
unsupported consequence of the collective practices of its users. But it is
questionable to what extent the unintentionally produced cultural, civic and
social value of YouTube is truly being valued or safeguarded, especially by
the company itself. Of course, even though YouTube is experienced as a
public space, it isn¹t really public at all, but a private enterprise
generating public value as a side-effect of the active participation of
consumer-citizens. YouTube puts into relief the dependency‹unanticipated in
³revolutionary² discourse‹on market-led platforms that enable participation
and engagement to flourish, while at the same time deriving value from them.
The political questions that arise from this reality can too easily be
sidelined exclusively into more prevalent debates around ³free labor² (at
its least sophisticated, going no further than to argue that if value is
being created, then someone¹s labour must be being exploited).

There are important political problems with the corporatization of amateur
and audience media use, but they look different with cultural participation,
rather than exploitation, in the frame. For example, copyright‹widely
considered to be a barrier to creativity‹looks different when we think of
YouTube as a shared cultural resource and a popular archive than it does
when we think of it as a platform for individual creativity or political
commentary (although it is that too, of course). The need to answer to
advertisers and a large number of national governments likewise is beginning
to influence the extent to which YouTube is available as a truly shared
resource to citizens of different countries, as localized filtering measures
are introduced and at least appear to be being used to block content
according to licensing restrictions.

Despite these constraints, if YouTube remains in existence for long enough,
the result will be not only a repository of vintage television content, but
something even more significant: a record of contemporary global popular
culture (including vernacular and everyday culture) in video form, produced
and evaluated according to the logics of cultural value that emerge from the
collective choices of the distributed YouTube user community. Indeed,
YouTube is arguably a more effective vehicle for the popular memorialisation
of television than are either broadcasters or cultural institutions, because
they tend to memorialize television-as-industry, and not

Cultural institutions (including public service broadcasters) are actively
considering how such developments will impact on their own missions and
practices,  but less consideration is usually given to the implications of
commercial spaces taking on some of the work of cultural institutions
without being tied to the same public and state-based responsibilities.
Archivist Rick Prelinger argues that those who have provided the
infrastructure which has unexpectedly produced these accidental archives, as
in the case of YouTube, are mostly ³blithely unconcerned by [the] questions
of persistence, ownership, standards, sustainability, or accountability²
that occupy professional archivists and their parent institutions.

Because YouTube offers its service based on commercial interests, rather
than public ones, there is no obligation to store this data beyond the
commercial viability of the company that provides the storage service. Nor
is there any straightforward way cultural institutions can re-archive
material that shows up on YouTube, because of legal barriers such as
copyright law and YouTube¹s Terms of Use.

These questions of public value and the archive highlight some of the
cultural implications of YouTube and its difference from broadcast media
like television. While YouTube is in the Œreach¹ business, with a business
model fundamentally based on delivering attention to advertisers, unlike
television networks, YouTube, Inc. does not program, collect or (other than
minimally) curate content: it provides a flat and accessible platform for an
extremely wide range of contributors, and YouTube, Inc. interferes with
their activities only to the extent that intervention is perceived as
necessary in order to stay on the right side of the law. At the same time,
this underdetermination can also be understood as under-regulation ­ which
is what gets the company so regularly into trouble with both Big Media
competitors and censorious national governments. Because of its openness and
underdetermination, YouTube is producing significant public value as an
³accidental² cultural archive; and yet the questions of how or whether this
enormous repository of cultural memory should be preserved and shared have
yet to be properly asked, yet alone answered. "


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