How YouTube Became OurTube

In 2008, the University of Southern California hosted 24/7: A DIY Video Summit, which was organized by Steve Anderson, Mimi Ito, and the fine folks at the Center for Multimedia Literacies. Here's some of what I wrote about the conference at the time:

The conference featured screenings focused on 8 different traditions of production-- Political Remix, Activist Media, Independent Arts Video, Youth Media, Machinima, Fan Vids, Videoblogging, Anime Music Video. The inclusiveness of the conference is suggested by the range of categories here -- with avant garde and activist videos shown side by side with youth media, machinima, anime music videos, and fanvids. The curators were not outsiders, selecting works based on arbitrary criteria, but insiders, who sought to reflect the ways these communities understood and evaluated their own work. Paul Marino, who directed Hardly Workin', and who has helped organize the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, put together a crackerjack program which took us from the very earliest use of games as animation engines through the most contemporary and cutting edge work, spanning across a range of different gaming platforms, and mixing videos which are about the games world with those which have a more activist or experimental thrust. Laura Shapiro, an experienced video-maker, brought together a range of fan music videos, again representing a diverse cross-section of fandoms, while Francesca Coppa offered informed critical commentary which identified the schools represented and their aesthetic and thematic goals for their works. Tim Park, an experienced AMV producer, put together a program of anime videos drawn from more than half a dozen different countries.Even in those categories I thought I knew well, I was familiar with only a fragment of the works shown, and even where I thought I knew a work well, I understood it differently when read in the context the curators provided. In some cases, these materials were being shown outside their subcultural community for perhaps the first time. Having written about fanvids since the 1980s, I was delighted to see them gain a public exhibition in this context and for media students to get a sense of the aesthetic complexity and emotional density that is possible working within this form.

Ito and Anderson recently returned to these same curators to see if they could offer us an updated view of their corners of DIY video culture. The IML team edited together a remarkable compilation representing of the key trends in contemporary online video for a screening last month at Los Angeles's Hammer Museum.

24/7 DIY 2010: Collective Action from IML @ USC on Vimeo.

I was asked to give some remarks after the screening and I thought I would write out some of my core ideas below. I have also asked the various curators to share their selections (with commentary) through my blog over the next few months. So, keep an eye open for what should be a fascinating series of snapshots of the best of contemporary DIY video.

How YouTube Became OurTube

I always stumble over pronouns when thinking about YouTube. After all, in the English language, "You" is both singular and plural. Most accounts of YouTube assume that it is a space for personal expression, yet if this is the case, why used networked technologies. It is not simply a site for self-branding or "broadcasting". Rather it is a site for collective expression, with many of the videos posted there coming from specific subcultural communities, each of which has a longer history than YouTube itself, each of which has evolved its own traditions of cultural production and circulation. So, for my purposes, let's consider the "You" in "Do-it-Yourself" as plural, multiple, collective, rather than singular, personal, individual.

This sense of YouTube as composed of many different production communities is vividly illustrated by the opening segment of this video, which shows how "I'm On a Boat," traveled from a Feb. 2009 sketch on Saturday Night Live, across many of the different subcultural communities represented in this program -- as it gets applied to anime and Star Trek, as it gets performed by A Capella groups and by the U.S. Navy, as it gets rewritten into "I'm on a Blimp" or "I'm on a Broom" to better fit the interests of specific fan communities. What we see here are the consequences of these various DIY media production communities coming together to a shared site where they can see what each is doing and where they can quickly apply what they learn to their own work. We can see this process as one which both impacts these various subgroups and starts to create a shared culture which runs across all of those populations who have chosen to use YouTube as a site for distributing their work.

All of this is a vivid illustration of what I've described elsewhere as "participatory culture." In a participatory culture, there are relatively low barriers for engagement and participation, there is strong support for sharing your creations with others, there is a system of informal mentorship where experienced participants help train newbies, and there is a sense that others care about what you say and create. Each of the subcultures represented here have some if not all of the properties of a participatory culture, and when YouTube provides a home for these communities, it acquires some of those properties as well, though it is less clear whether anyone has a primary identification with YouTube and it is very clear that in some ways YouTube itself (especially in its comments sections) can be hostile to the diversity that a participatory culture needs to thrive.

All of this is to say that Web 2.0 is not participatory culture. The Web 2.0 companies seek to court, capture, and commercialize aspects of participatory culture but they do not create it and they do not own it and often, their commercial interests are imperfectly alligned with the noncommercial interests which motivate DIY cultural production. What I am calling participatory culture has a long history -- we can trace its roots back to the folk cultural logic which has shaped human expression throughout much of its history; throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, participatory culture has run through many struggles of everyday people to capture the means of cultural production and to communicate their own stories to the world, a history which runs across many different technological platforms and many different cultural communities.

As I suggested in my essay, "What Happened Before YouTube?," our society was ready for YouTube when it appeared, which is why it was flooded so quickly with all forms of amateur and noncommercial media production, many of which had been looking for a site for circulation and exhibition. While the mad rush to get their work on YouTube is impressive by any criteria, it was a byproduct of long-standing interests within these various groups in producing and sharing media with each other. Some of the practices represented in this program build on those traditions, while others reflect the new potentials which have emerged as a consequence of the hybrid media ecology which has formed at the cultural crossroads which YouTube represents.

Confronting the quick spread of themes and sounds represented by the "I'm On a Boat" phenomenon, many fall back on empty phrases, such as "viral" or "meme" to explain what is going on. In our forthcoming Spreadable Media book, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I dissect these concepts, suggesting that they each mystify rather than clarify the process of cultural production and circulation by treating culture as if it were "self-replicating" rather than acknowledging the human agency involved. In particular, the "I'm on a Boat" videos break down the notion of "fidelity" which runs through writing on Memes and Viruses: we do not simply pass these songs on from mind to mind, rather each new group makes its own contributions, leaves its own mark on what the others have produced. These videos are not simply spreading rapidly, like a contagion, but they are evolving rapidly, through a high speed and high tech version of the folk process.

Some of what gets produced for YouTube may start as self-branding, but the work that matters to people matters because it invites their participation, because it encourages them to join the action, even if only through spreading the word. We see this process at work in the segment featured here showing Matthew Harding's "Where the Hell is Matt?" videos, which began as one man's tour of the world, dancing to the sound of his own drummer, but ends with larger and larger groups of people dancing along with Matt. Other featured videos turn our attention towards collective action -- encouraging people to share images of their communities working towards shared interests or agendas. This tendency is spectacularly represented here by the 350 Movement and The GayClic Collab Against Homophobia, both represented in the "All Together Now" portion of the video. In other cases, the videos function as a call and response system, encouraging people to jam together, even though they remain geographically dispersed, as can be seen in "The Mother of All Cords." This desire to express collaborative or collective expression may be what fuels the proliferation of windows, a set of formal practices which gets singled out later in the program.

The program also offers us some examples of how the community passes along knowledge to newer members, shown here in "AMV Technique Beat," an Anime Music Video about the conventions shaping the Anime Music Video genre. And elsewhere, we get the sense of the video platform as a site for important community conversations, as the curators brought together a selection of the different responses to the Derrion Albert beating. As Jean Burgess and Joshua Green have noted in their book about YouTube, even seemingly unprocessed clips, segments taken from commercial films and television series, may serve as resources for the community's conversations, with the comment sections on the site and elsewhere being as important to the process as the video itself. YouTube has become a platform where we go to talk about, through, and around videos, and the site's willingness to make it possible for us to embed these videos on social networking sites and blogs is another key factor in enabling it to support these kinds of dialogues between and within diverse populations.

As I reflect on this process of transforming media content into resources for conversation and communication, I am reminded of the work of my mentor, John Fiske:

"If the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which the people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities, they will be rejected and will fail in the marketplace. They will not be made popular."

Fiske insisted that mass culture texts only became popular culture when the public took them up as "resources" through which they could express their own perspectives.

Fiske's theories in the 1980s helped prepare me and many media scholars of my generation for contemporary remix culture. The "Deconstructing Our Icons" and "Putting Words in Our Mouths" sections here show this remix process at work. Each of the subcultures that are reflected in the current program draws some of its raw materials from popular culture, but several of them -- the Fan Vidders, the Anime Music Vids, Machinema, and the Political Remix vids -- in particular are built around different strategies for appropriating and remixing video content. In some cases, the original content is abstracted beyond the point of recognizability, while in others, the point is for us to recognize it both in terms of its original context and the new context into which it has been inserted. There are several striking examples here from the last presidential campaign, including "Terrorizing Dissent" where McCain's convention speech is juxtaposed against the police's assault on protesters outside, "Dance Off" where McCain, Obama, and Palin dance for their awe-struck publics, and "Synchronized Presidential Debating" which makes visible the candidate's reliance on preset soundbytes rather than spontaneous engagement with their rivals. The selections from the Fan Vidding world also show us how the form is being increasingly used to make critical comments on the culture around them, as illustrated by the "Art Bitch" video based on Battlestar: Galactica and the "Piece of Me" video commenting on Brittany Spears and celebrity culture.

A striking shift from the 2008 to the 2010 videos has been the increasingly globalized nature of this grassroots media production. We see this in playful ways as media makers from the developing world join the "lip dub" movement or contribute to pass-along video compilations, but we also saw it in the ways that protesters in Iran were able to capture and transmit powerful footage of the action in the streets in the aftermath of their failed elections. The images of Neda gave a face to the movement and will remain key icons of the 21st century. If some have described, with a certain degree of mythologization, what happened in Iran as a "Twitter Riot," we need to also recognize that it was also a YouTube and Flickr riot. In each case, though, we need to recognize that these media were directed towards us in the west rather than being resources used in Tehran to mobilize the revolution that never quite came. The Iranians tapped new technologies and their strong diasporic network to get word out of their often closed country and to court public opinion around the world. This too is part of the story of DIY media in recent years.

Through this process of media sharing, we have collectively distilled attention around key images and moments which now form key elements of our cultural archive -- some of these elements come from mass media (such as Kanye West's disruptions and eruptions), some from the grassroots media (such as "Charley Bit Me," "Keyboard Cat," or "Double Rainbow,"). In either case, these images have become culturally central because they have provided many different groups with expressive resources. They have gained resonance as they have been deployed and redeployed through countless other videos and thus they have become part of the shared culture of the various networks which pass through YouTube.

In this context, each new formal innovation (capacities to autotune sounds, to layer on windows, or to use Little Big Planet to design characters and levels) travels rapidly from one producing community to another. Early on, the tool may become a source of fascination in its own right, while later, it simply becomes one more device which can be used to create a fan vid or score a political point. In such a context, it becomes challenging to maintain any sharp dividing line between different kinds of subcultural practices. What seemed relatively distinct in 2008 seems less so in 2010.

For me, one of the most compelling segments of this video involved the "lip dub," a practice of grassroots performance where communities of people get together and produce elabroate, single-take music numbers. As I watched these, I was delighted by the sense of collective joy as places of work -- stores, offices, and schools primarily -- get transformed into performance spaces, taken over as sites of play. Behind each such video there is a story of collaborative production, often creative expression which straddles other kinds of hierarchies - as bosses and workers, teachers and students, doctors and patients, work together to create something which allows each of them to feel a moment of stardom. Compared to many traditional societies our culture has surprisingly few such moments of collective joy, few chances to transcend fixed relationships and imagine new ways of singing and dancing together.

Here's a complete list of the videos featured in the program:

Get on the #@&$! Boat

"I'm on a Boat" A Capella | Acquire A Capella of UC Santa Cruz | 2009

I'm on a Boat - Star Trek | kiki_miserychic | 2009

I'm on A Boat (Wind Waker Version) | Matthew Gallant | 2009

Pokemon I'm on a Boat Music Video | DJPhiUp | 2009

I'm on a Blimp (ft. Teddy) | LittleKuriboh | 2009

In a Snuggie | Mikey and Big Bob | 2009

I'm on a Boat Navy Edition | Eychner | 2009

One Piece Tribute: "I'm on a Boat" | fishytoothy | 2009

I'm on a Broom (I'm on a Boat parody) | heynadine | 2009

All Together Now

Day 18 NaVloPoMo | Ermander |2009

Day 10 NaVloPoMo | miglsd | 2009

navlopomo#08 | Miguel Serradas Duarte | 2009

shadow out of time | AliaK | 2009

It's Time | Videolution | 2009

Why Would Anyone Want to Stop You from Voting? | Ian Inaba | 2008

The Day the World Came Together - The 350 Movement: October 24, 2009 | 350org | 2009

Where the Hell Is Matt? | Matthew Harding | 2008

THE BIG FAT GAY COLLAB! | steviebeebishop | 2009

The GayClic Collab Against Homophobia (from France) - Fuck You by Lily Allen | GayClicTube | 2009

SOUR '日々の音色 (Hibi no neiro)' | Masashi Kawamura + Hal Kirkland + Magico Nakamura + Masayoshi Nakamura | 2009

Deconstructing Our Icons

Ian Fleming's Property of a Lady | qwaga | 2009

Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed | Jonathan McIntosh | 2009

Piece of Me | obsessive24 | 2008

Art Bitch | hollywoodgrrl | 2009

Creepy Mario 64 | LightningWolf3 | 2008

Terrorizing Dissent RNC08 - Trailer | | 2008

See it, Shoot it, Share it

Neda Agha Soltan, killed 20.06.2009, Presidential Election Protest, Tehran, IRAN | AliJahanii | 2009

DERRION ALBERT- BEATIN TO DEATH SEP, 27 2009 | laurenmonique19 | 2009

RE:Chicago student Derrion Albert KILLED in a FIGHT | lovelyti2002 | 2009

DERRION ALBERTS BEAT TO DEATH AT 16YRS OLD (Fenger Highschool) | dncmoneyblogtv1 | 2009

RE: Raw Video of Derrion Albert 16 teen year old beaten to death in chicago sep 27 2009 | nate4keys, 2009

Teach it Yourself

The Story of Stuff | Annie Leonard | 2009

RSA Animate - Crises of Capitalism | theRSAorg | 2010

Charts Music | Johannes Kreidler | 2009

Marines - The Red Stripe | Patrick St. John | 2009

The Cycle of Insanity: The Real Story of Water | The Surfrider Foundation | 2010

Little Big Mods

Little big planet COSTUMES SACKBOY | xxxNUCKxxx | 2008

Little Big Planet: Takeshi's Castle | IGNentertainment | 2008

Little Big Planet: Love and Marriage (Engagement Proposal) | Jed05 | 2008

Frost* - Toys - Little Big Planet Music Video | Pete Waite | 2008

Little Big Revenge | Michael Van Ostade and Kaat Schellen | 2009

LittleBigPlanet - This is Sparta (300 parody) | DarkAslox | 2009

Little Big Planet - Watchmen Trailer | | 2009

Little Daft Punk | DanteND | 2009

MTBig Planet | DanteND | 2009

Put Some Words in My Mouth

AMV Technique Beat | Douggie | 2007

Davos Annual Meeting 2010 - Queen Elizabeth II of England | World Economic Forum | 2010

HTC Evo VS iPhone 4 | Brian Maupin | 2010

White Wedding: Literal Video Version | DustoMcNeato | 2009

Davos Annual Meeting 2010 - ADM CEO Patricia Woertz | World Economic Forum | 2010

Total Eclipse of the Heart: Literal Video Version | David A. Scott | 2009

Obama and McCain - Dance Off! | David Morgasen | 2008

Gimme More Windows

Kutiman-Thru-you - 01 - Mother of All Funk Chords | Kutiman | 2009

Mario Kart Love Song (Original) | Sam Hart | 2008

Mario Kart Love Song Matlock Project ( cover ) | matrockrecords | 2009

Alice - Pogo Remix | Pogo | 2009

Alice - Pogo Remix - YooouuuTuuube Remix | David Kraftsow (YooouuuTuuube) | 2009

Only Bob | Infinity Squared | 2009

Synchronized Presidential Debating | | 2008

A Soundtrack for our Life

A Day at the Office | sfeder331 | 2009

The first LIP-DUB in the Arab World and Africa | Anas Benkirane | 2010

Hey Ya: A music video | Shorecrest Video Department | 2009

Shorewood Lip Dub | Shorewood High School | 2009

Hôpital Sacré-Coeur Lip Dub | HSCM2009 | 2009

Lip Dub TOYS R US NANTES Martin Solveig | Toys R Us Nantes | 2009

University LipDub - Brazil - FACCAMP | Campo LImpo Paulista College | 2009

Weird Science- Office Lip Dub! | rancidbry | 2010

lipdub MINI STORE rennes | Mini Store Rennes | 2009

Lip Dub - "Miley Cyrus" by KIIS FM Staff | KIIS-FM Staff | 2008

Tune it Yourself

Dude You Have No Quran AUTOTUNE REMIX | Bart Baker | 2010

This Year in Auto-Tune 2009 - That Really Happened?! | DJ Steve Porter | 2009

Auto-Tune Cute Kids and Kanye | The Gregory Brothers | 2009

Auto-Tune the News #2: pirates. drugs. gay marriage | The Gregory Brothers | 2009

Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow 1-8-10 | Yosemitebear | 2010

Double Rainbow Song | The Gregory Brothers and Yosemitebear | 2010

Carl Sagan - 'A Glorious Dawn' ft Stephen Hawking (Symphony of Science) | John Boswell | 2009

Wedding Dance Videos

JK Wedding Entrance Dance | TheKheinz | 2009

JK Divorce Entrance Dance | NYVideoProduction | 2009

Spanish Wedding Dancers | Gonzalo Garcia Martinez | 2009

wedding entrance dance spain- entrada boda bailando Miguel y Loida Forever | rbkme | 2009

DK Wedding Reception Entrance Dance | MrPandit33 | 2009


Moran & Irit's wedding Entrance Dance surprise | irimori | 2009

MK Wedding Entrance Dance by Chippendales | chippendales | 2010

JK Wedding Entrance Dance Webkinz Style | PuppyDawg1022 | 2009

JK Wedding Entrance Dance Baby | | 2009


Event Coordinators: Steve Anderson, Mimi Ito, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Holly Willis

Program Editor: Ana Shepherd Video Coordinator: Miranda Peter-Lazaro Legal Advisor: Jason Schultz

24/7 2010 Curators: Matteo Bittanti, Francesca Coppa, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Ryanne Hodson, Jonathan McIntosh, Tim Park and Mike Wesch

Special thanks to Jonathan Wells, Meg Grey-Wells and the staff of The Hammer Museum

Sponsored by the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California