"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.
What kind of environment is YouTube for children? The answers to that question are often complex and contradictory. They vary across the children, parents, and teachers we have interviewed as part of our study on Digital Youth. Although some children have reported harassment problems and distress due to harsh criticism and mean comments, others have reported making important connections to other people for help with making videos, and forming social and emotional ties with mentors, peers, and YouTube stars. Some people have experienced both hostility and meaningful social connection when participating on the site. One way to understand different dimensions of participation is to attend YouTube meet-ups that provide opportunities for "YouTubers" to make social connections with other participants on the site.
“What Defines a Community?”
YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQJbgEiQ4Cg
YouTube, like many online groups, is not a self-contained social world. Interaction between participants occurs on the site and off, through a range of media as people take their conversations to email, instant messaging, and other video and chat services such as Stickam. In the past year, YouTubers have also reported attending in-person meet-ups in both large and small groups (such as when they travel to a place in which they know a YouTube acquaintance lives) and decide to meet. A number of larger, more publicized gatherings have also occurred around the world in places such as Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, Georgia, Chicago, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, London, and Melbourne, among others. I was fortunate enough to attend the New York meet-up called “777” since it took place on July 7, 2007 at Washington Square Park in New York City. In late September, I also attended the meet-up in Marietta, Georgia, popularly known as “SouthTube,” which attracted many YouTube participants from the Southern part of the United States, but was also attended by participants from elsewhere around the world. I was fascinated by the idea of a YouTube meet-up. Searching for the expression “YouTube meet-up” on the site yields hundreds of videos documenting YouTubers’ experience meeting each other in person. I wondered, who would go to a meet-up? Why would they go? Why is it important for YouTubers to have meet-ups?
As I rode in the cab to the meet-up I wondered how the proposed law in New York City that aimed to restrict public recordings might impact the event, which would likely contain many YouTubers equipped with cameras filming each other. I arrived at the meet-up just after 11 a.m. yet hardly anyone had arrived. The cab dropped me off right by the arch at Washington Square Park. Seeing such a dramatic view of the arch, I couldn’t resist taking some footage. I set down my tripod, hoping to record it quickly and move on. Glancing around, no one seemed to notice or care about my tripod. I got my footage and wandered into the park, wondering how I would survive a whole day in the hot, New York summer sun. Many of us were grateful when free water bottles were passed out later in the day.
The event had been co-coordinated by several YouTube participants. One organizer lived in New York City and had advertised the event in several of her YouTube videos. The event had few officially organized activities, although a coca-cola and Mentos demonstration that had been planned was complicated by police intervention. This event referenced the popular viral videos circulating on YouTube in which dropping a Mentos candy into a coca-cola bottle produced a frothy explosion that many people find humorous to watch. Despite the discouragement, a few people reportedly managed to quietly launch smaller versions of the Mentos and coke effect, with the footage subsequently (and predictably) freely circulated all over YouTube.
As a researcher, I had looked forward to the meet-up because I anticipated that it would be a wonderful opportunity to meet YouTubers from around the world and interview them in person about their experiences. Although I did speak to a number of participants, I learned that such meet-ups present a number of research challenges. In addition to potential local sensitivities to filming and logistics of achieving passable recorded sound in a noisy outdoor environment, a number of social issues also presented challenges. When I suggested that interviewees and I move to a slightly quieter section of the park, interviewees expressed concern about moving too far from the main action. Even a few feet was less desirable, which meant the interview had to be conducted closer to noisy festivities.
Time for interviews could be constrained as attendees wanted to maximize their experience and achieve their goals in coming to the meet-up, whether that meant hanging out with people they knew already from smaller, local YouTube meet-ups, or meeting new acquaintances or their favorite YouTube stars. Cameras abounded and attendees often had themselves photographed or conducted video-blogging style interviews with their idols and fans. A palpable sense of excitement and energy emanated from the many small bouquets of people meeting and photographing each other, in some cases, for the first time. Attendees that I have spoken to at video events and YouTube meet-ups have talked about how attending meet-ups requires resources in terms of both time and money, and they cannot always afford to attend too many. One man I spoke with from Canada mentioned spending 11 hours on a bus to get to 777.
Since 777, this protestor and other participants have debated YouTube’s appropriateness for children. People often express concern about “haters” or people who leave harsh criticism or mean comments on other participants’ videos. Indeed, some of the people I spoke with at 777 had not yet posted videos, citing concerns about how their participation might be received, and how issues such as body image make them cautious about exposing themselves to criticism. In terms of video content, while some people I interviewed expressed concern about YouTube’s ability to ensure a safe environment for participation, others felt that YouTube had been vigilant about taking down material that was not appropriate for children. I compiled a number of these interview comments into a video called “YouTube Your Way.” I posted the video on my YouTube research site, called AnthroVlog (which stands for “anthropology video blog” and can be found on YouTube using the search term AnthroVlog). The purpose of the site has been to experiment with learning to video blog, collect data about people’s YouTube experiences, and test the possibility of distributing certain forms of anthropological knowledge directly on the site.
"YouTube Your Way"
YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcvQrmNbO50
I found it particularly interesting to speak with parents (both at 777 and during the course of the research) to hear their opinion about their child’s YouTube participation. At 777, I spoke with the parents of a 14-year old boy who is the star of a very popular YouTube show. His parents shared concerns about appropriateness of YouTube content, but they also observed that YouTube had taken down questionable videos that had been flagged. Their experience with their son’s media participation illustrate that, for some people, participating on YouTube is a family affair. Wishing to support their son’s interest in potentially pursuing a career in media, they help him with his YouTube show. Similar to other parents whom I’ve interviewed, they support their children’s YouTube experiences by providing financial, technical, or emotional support for their media making, sometimes by traveling with them to YouTube meet-ups to help their children make connections to other people on the site.
During the course of our study, interviews have revealed that some parents choose to understand their children’s mediated experiences by more directly participating and helping co-produce their media, sometimes appearing with their children in their YouTube video projects. One mother-daughter team that I observed have a YouTube show in which they discuss aspects of television shows they like to watch. As the mother of the teen-aged girl put it:
"So I wanted to be involved with my kids but I think it’s more important that the kids want the parents to be involved. [Because] I’ve seen other parents – like my mom doesn’t understand the type of relationship I have with my kids and she’s like, ‘I’m gonna get you some software so that you can spy on your kids when they’re on the Internet.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t have to do that. I know exactly where they are because I’m with them.’
[So] I feel sorry for the people who have to have a relationship like that with their kids where the kids feel like they have to sneak around behind you know the parents’ back and they don’t know what’s going on. So I thought that was important. So that’s probably another reason why I wanted to do the videos with [my daughter] because, you know, I wanted to stay involved."
Reportedly over a thousand people attended the 777 meet-up in New York City over the course of the day. In contrast, SouthTube listed some 150 people on its welcome flyer, with estimates ranging from 200 to 300 people reportedly attending some portion of the event. Despite the smaller numbers, the event had a large-scale feel to me. Perhaps one reason is that the first night of activities were held at the Marietta Conference Center and Resort where many attendees stayed. The second day of festivities centered around a cook-out held at the Red Top Mountain State Park, in Cartersville, Georgia, near Marietta.
On the first day at SouthTube, attendees picked up a packet at the welcome table. One of the items was a list of YouTube channel names. (A channel name is the YouTube term for a nickname or real name that people use when participating on the site). This list was part of a meet-and-greet game in which the goal was to find as many people on the list as possible and write down the unique number printed on each person’s name tag. Held at a hotel, the event reminded me of a reunion—but of a very special kind. Everyone’s connection had to do with YouTube participation, but their familiarity with specific people there varied greatly. While some people had already met up and become friends off the site, others were meeting certain YouTubers in person for the first time. I appreciated having an exercise that broke the ice and helped us get to know other YouTubers.
A media frenzy could be created when a popular YouTube star such as “TubeGranny” entered the lobby of the resort. People would crowd around with cameras to pose with her or take her picture. In one instance, someone had brought a large green gourd to the event and was passing it around as a conversation piece. When her turn came to look at the gourd, a popular YouTuber from the south pretended it was a microphone and began speaking into it. Within seconds people began aiming their video cameras at her. In paparazzi style, a number of others began seeing “action” and cameras followed other cameras to start video recording before people even understood what they were recording. Soon, she was surrounded with people laughing and commenting on how many cameras were filming her and asking her questions, in a kind of mock, press-conference style.
In addition to the hotel conference rooms, the resort also had a veranda with white rocking chairs facing the golf course where people could hang out and talk. At night, SouthTube held a dance party complete with “awards” for video-maker categories such as “Most Creative User Name” and “Most Likely to Brighten Your Day.” I wondered whether the gatherings would be regionally limited in terms of attendance, but I noted that a number of the 777 organizers were also at SouthTube, participating in the festivities.
During the party, I couldn’t help but notice a YouTuber I had watched early on when I began studying YouTube. It was rather an odd feeling to see someone I had watched so much on YouTube in my early experiences with the site there in person. I had to smile when the next morning, I over heard a popular YouTuber relate a similar experience. Although he himself is very popular on the site, he told another YouTuber that she was, to him, quite famous because he had watched her videos early in his YouTube career. Meet-ups often reveal unexpected dynamics that occur when you watch someone’s videos and learn something about them, but then see them in person. It creates an odd kind of distanced familiarity and sense of asymmetrical closeness that may need to be addressed before participants can proceed to different dimensions of social interaction.
On the second day, YouTubers attended a cook-out in a beautiful state park overlooking a sparkling blue lake. Glancing at the scene from afar, it could look to an outsider like a picnic in any number of social groups that come together to grill food and hang out. As I interviewed people at SouthTube, I asked them questions about “haters” and about “community” and I noticed a range of interesting responses. Many people felt that to them, YouTube was a community for a variety of reasons, including making social connections, obtaining emotional or financial support, and sharing common interests. Some people also claimed that the existence of “haters” and clique-ish “drama” on the site were in fact examples of why YouTube qualified as a community. Like the extended family which can contain odd members or members with varying levels of commitment to the group, so too did YouTube feel to some people like a community with its own social benefits and conflicts.
I compiled a number of reactions to the question on whether YouTube felt like a community in a video entitled, “What Defines a Community?” which I posted to YouTube. It was subsequently featured on the welcome YouTube page, and on the welcome YouTube page in Italy. Now sporting over 1 million views, the video generated a number of comments which will be useful to examine in terms of analyzing: 1) how people perceive YouTube’s sociality; 2) how people characterize the analytical concept of community; and 3) how effective or complicated it can be to distribute anthropological knowledge on YouTube. Although some people interpreted the video as summarized “findings,” the video was intended more as an “open video fieldnote” that would enable wider access to the observations I had as an anthropologist attending a YouTube event. Rather than describe the event solely in text for the consumption of researchers, the video provides additional information about what it was like to be there and to experience YouTube participation in person.
“What Defines a Community?”
YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQJbgEiQ4Cg
For some people, going to SouthTube facilitated making emotional and social connections to people with whom they had cultivated a friendship on the site. I spoke with one older teen-aged girl who had health and financial issues, but nevertheless made it a point to attend the event, partly in order to meet a YouTuber who had supported her by mentioning her and her medical problems in his videos. When I asked her after the event in a chat interview about how it felt for the popular, adult YouTuber to mention her in his videos she said:
"I have never felt so happy and loved/cared for by somebody that I really hardly know. It feels awesome that he took the time to do such a nice thing for me!! Just to get [a lot] of people on [YouTube] to know about my health issues."
She described how her mother was supportive of her goals and YouTube participation and helped her travel to SouthTube in order to make a connection with someone who had inspired her. I asked the teen what it was like to meet him at SouthTube and she said:
"I [finally] ran into him sunday morning. we ran into each other in the hallway at the hotel. as soon as he saw me he picked me up and hugged me. b/c he was sooo happy that i got to come.
[And] we talked at Red Top [Mountain] for about 15 minutes and took pics of each other and videos of each other. [It] was awesome [to talk to him]. he is really an inspiration to me. b/c he is an awesome father to his kids."
For some participants, YouTube is not an exotic site, but rather is simply a platform for conducting every day experiences such as making media and sharing those connections to other people on and off the site. Certainly many of the people interviewed for this study are well aware of the safety and self-esteem concerns that people have when participating on YouTube or other online sites. The suggestion is not that most people use YouTube in these ways or consider it a community for them. However, these experiences do show that for some families, making and sharing video-oriented media, like taking photographs at a family picnic, are common aspects of daily life that are increasingly shared with dispersed others online.