What Happened Before YouTube?

G'day Mates. The following op-ed piece, which I co-authored with John Hartley, appeared yesterday morning in the Sydney Morning Herald. The text is a mash up of two pieces -- one by me, one by Hartley -- which will appear in a forthcoming book on Youtube being written by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green and due out by the end of this year. I am here in Brisbane, Australia this week participating in a conference being hosted by Queensland University of Technology's Center of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. The conference's theme is "Creating Value: Between Commerce and Commons." And this editorial is a pretty good representation of the core themes of my talk. I want to place YouTube in a larger historical context and in the process, to call attention to the conscious decisions being made by a variety of groups to Youtube or not to Youtube, rather than treating YouTube as the origin point for participatory culture and as the inevitable hub around which all amateur media making orbits. The plentitude of YouTube can leave us with the sense that everything and everyone is there, not inviting us to ask questions about which groups have opted out or been excluded and why, or to question whether YouTube represents the best possible model for supporting participatory culture. The longer version of this piece contains an extended discussion of some of the choices being made in the fan vidding community around these issues and describes some of the concerns that the history of women's role in remix video may be written out of the history of YouTube. All of this was informed by conversations I've had in and around USC's DIY conference earlier in the year.

I have long regarded the Creative Industries program here as a sibling of what we are doing in Comparative Media Studies. I have featured a number of QUT folks in the past through my blog -- Alan McKee, Axel Bruns, and Jean Burgess. They are doing extraordinary work in the areas of civic media, new media literacy, participatory culture, intellectual property law, globalization, and creative industries, that is, on many of the themes which also animate our own work at MIT. It's been great to be here so far, getting to know more of the researchers at the Center and what they are doing, and cementing relations with long time friends and colleagues.

YouTube: home port for lip-syncers, karaoke singers, trainspotters, birdwatchers, skateboarders, hip hoppers, small time wrestling federations, educators, third wave feminists, churches, proud parents, poetry slammers, gamers, human rights activists, hobbyists. It gets 10 hours of new content every minute.Where did all that come from?

There is much that is new about YouTube, but there is also much that is old. The emergence of `Do-It-Yourself' cultures of all kinds over the past several decades paved the way for the early embrace, quick adoption, and diverse use of new media. YouTube has gone from nowhere to cultural ubiquity in a couple of years because we already know what to do with it.

Among its precursors were the zines of the political and cultural avant garde of the 1970s and 80s, closely tied to the growth of punk rock and the emergence of `Riot Grrl' feminism. They were also part of a much larger history of amateur publishing. In the case of the science fiction fan community, this could be traced back to the 1920s.

And these DIY or DIWO: `do it with others' impulses spilled over from print zines to include the production of mix tapes and home videos.

Modern cyberculture can trace its roots back to the 1960s, with `people's radio,' early video activism, underground newspapers and comics; all efforts to deploy low cost media tools and practices towards alternative ends.

Many early netizens explicitly embraced the value of participatory culture. These utopian pioneers would greet YouTube's amateurs not as mindless kids but as the fulfilment of their own hopes and a validation of their predictions.

The rhetoric of the `digital revolution' has assumed that new media displace the old. But YouTube exemplifies what Henry Jenkins calls a `convergence culture,' with its complex interactions and collaborations between corporate and grassroots media.

YouTube does not so much change the conditions of production as it alters the contexts of circulation and reception. Amateur, activist and avant garde works now reach a larger public. Yet, many of those earlier advocates remain skeptical that a commercial firm like YouTube can truly enable alternative politics. If we want to see a more democratic culture, they argue, we need anti-corporate outlets, greater diversity among participants, more debate about whose work gets seen and how it is valued.

But as Geekcorps founder Ethan Zuckerman says, any medium sufficiently powerful to enable the distribution of cute cat pictures can also, under the right circumstances, be deployed to bring down a government.

Right now, people are learning how to produce, upload and circulate content. What happens next is up to us all. With YouTube, there is almost infinite scope for creative content and new ideas to be produced by just anyone, without the need for avant

garde leadership, expert filtering or institutional control. The so-called `long tail' of self-made content is accessible to anyone near a computer terminal.

While most people can read, very few publish in print. Hence active contribution to science, journalism and even fictional storytelling has been restricted to expert elites, while most of the general population makes do with ready-made entertainment.

But the internet does not distinguish between literacy and publication. So now we are entering a new kind of digital literacy, where everyone is a publisher and whole populations have the chance to contribute as well as consume.

We can certainly use the internet for daydreaming, mischief and time-wasting, but it is equally possible to move on to other levels of functionality, and other purposes, including science, journalism and works of the imagination. You can already find all this on YouTube.

If we see YouTube as operating without a history, we erase the politics behind those struggles to prepare the way, and we may end up accepting far less than what we bargained for, or what might be possible if we participate.

By reclaiming what happened before, we will have a basis for judging how well YouTube really is serving the cause of participatory culture and the growth of knowledge among all sections of society. We may also find openings for `a critique, a goal, a community, and a context' of the kind that motivated earlier DIY media-makers.

As they say in The Matrix: `I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin.'

Professor Henry Jenkins co-directs the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tomorrow he will speak at the Australian Research Council Centre for Creative Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology, where Professor John Hartley is the research director.