YOUTUBE BLUES: WAILINGS OF A FAILED MEDIA PLATFORM

MARSHALL BERG 4.8.11 YouTube1 is arguably the largest platform of spectacle to exist in civilization thus far. With an average 1 billion videos watched daily in 2009.2 “The spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a socialeconomic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught.”3 I intend to expand on these ideas through explaining popular examples and trends of YouTube videos, an explanation of its short history, my personal relationship with the site, and a sampling of new media theory. I first discovered YouTube, around the same time I started making films. I saw it as a tool to share my work, to give and receive critique with a larger community. I saw it as a democratic juxtaposition to traditional media outlets, a very legitimate source to show and store my films. Thus I uploaded my videos to the site shortly after visiting it for the first time. YouTube seemed like the new media of a neo-democratic revolution: a way in which to spread ideas, using virtual information as media to change the real world. I’ve come to realize all these hopes were illusions; worse, YouTube has evolved to become an integral component of major media outlets, advertisement distribution, and the capitalist spectacle. This new media source is, “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”4 YouTube serves as a database for all images of culture past and present growing continuously with of 20 hours of footage uploaded per minute.5 Its hyperlinked road map of video streams lead to

nowhere in particular. This invites users to get lost in a frantic search for information in the form of entertainment. HUMBLE BEGININGS On February 14, 2005, three ex-Paypal employees registered the domain YouTube.com. They had formed an idea of sharing video clips and short personal films quickly and easily, by streaming them on a searchable Internet database. Users were invited to upload, share, discuss, and store media. The first video uploaded on YouTube is a foretelling of its future. It features one of the sites co-founders at the zoo explaining why elephants are “cool”. The 19 second clip is filmed on a shaky handheld camera which cuts out mid action.6 What looks like random footage used for a test of the system, defined the look of personal videos from its existence on. A second defining moment of Youtube’s history, which fueled its international popularity happened when an interview of John Stuart on CNN’s Crossfire was uploaded to the site on January 16th, 2006.7 “YouTube provided a quantifiable audience greater than Crossfire’s cable viewership. The site was positioned as a filter by users to share media without wading through the noise of CNN and their advertisers.”8 Other sites were emerging with similar functions but YouTube offered a variety of avant-garde tools and services that quickly made it the number one website to upload and stream video on the web, becoming a powerhouse in the media market. TOOLS OF THE TRADE “Tagging”: The ability to add personal search terms to videos.

“Scrubbing”: The ability to move through videos, rewinding, and replaying. “Sharing”: Enabled users to easily invite friends, promoting individual accounts that allowed users to favorite videos, or add comments without the need to upload. “Embedding”: a dialogue box displaying html code has always allowed the user to embed videos onto any other website with ease. This feature retains the signature white and red YouTube player, the brand logo, and serves as a hyperlink back to the main site, thus serving as an icon, a user-generated, self referencing, viral media platform. “Related Videos”: A side bar located on any video page on YouTube invites users to click on hyperlinks to videos similar to that which they are viewing. “This mode of hyperlinking effectively replicated channel-surfing and introduces nonnarrative seriality to the viewing experience.”9 GOOGLE & THE MATURITY OF YOUTUBE In October of 2006, Internet giant Google bought YouTube for 1.65 billion10 dollars, a price tag that additionally heightened the database’s reputation.11 By March of 2007, many different videos were being uploaded onto the site: pirated and fan-made music videos, video diaries, independent mini series, personal clips, moments, captured violence, traditional media clips, film trailers, political satire, still images with songs, and an exponentially growing amount of opinions existing side by side. Tom Sherman describes this evolved state of video production as

“Vernacular Video.” He describes the history of video as the medium of the people. In the 21st century “it is the common and everyday way that people communicate. Video is the way people place themselves at events, and describe what happened. In existential terms… it is an instrument for framing existence and identity.”12 YouTube was a tool that video had longed for in a society where big business was in control of media access. Now people had an extremely ripe tool for sharing and absorbing a personal identity through media, where before there had only been a scripted, branded one. YouTube’s lack of form is in part what made it so popular. The simple motto: “Broadcast Yourself” is open to interpretation. It directly asks for your perspective. The ease of use continued to grow as users could now use their Google account to sign in to YouTube, upload directly from a webcam, and quickly upload via iPhone 3GS and later models which provides a “Send to YouTube” button in the video options.13 What would all of these millions of broadcasts look like? What has the biggest impact on grass-roots media? As Tom Sherman states, “The people’s video is influenced by advertising, shorter and shorter attention spans, a fascination with crude animation and crude behaviors, quick-and-dirty voice-overs and bold graphics that highlight declining appreciation of written language.”14

CHOPPY CODECS

YouTube encodes their videos using H.263 and H.264 codecs and an .flv format to allow for smaller file sizes and less buffering time. These codecs reduce colors down to a limited 256-tone pallet. Then the program translates the like color pixels into predictive vectors. This enables less information to be stored for vectors that don’t change drastically in color. These videos are extremely quick to upload, download, and compress to a fraction of their original size. However these codecs work best for converting high quality footage and steady shots, and are necessary when uploading large files online. Lower resolution and excessive movement (in the shot, or of the physical camera) produce images that lack definition appearing blurred, pixelated, or fragmented, regardless of buffer strength.15 The video, “*-BMX 03-* Filmed of My Camera Phone (Razor)”16 is a perfect example of a failing codec. The nine second video depicts a teenage boy on a bmx bike doing a 180 bunny hop over a tipped over basketball hoop. The boy moves too quick for the codec to process, especially with the degraded quality of video taken with a camera phone. He appears to stop and slow right in the midst of action, blocks of similar colors jaggedly move across the screen. “If your camera is not steady, most of the image moves, causing a high percentage of pixels that change from frame to frame. A steady camera reduces the number of pixels that change from frame to frame, giving you better quality at higher compression rates (lower data rates)”17 THE BEAST

“Streaming clips on YouTube reflect the aesthetics of access; reduced resolution becomes a (willing) trade-off for quick and easy use- an issue that has reoccurred across various technologies, from photocopies to VHS tapes to MP3s.”18 A few years after YouTube we saw a rise of cultural memetic superstars, the fall of video quality, and a public reclamation of the media, all to the horror of the old media super powers that struggled to keep up. YouTube, from the very beginning was a way to share personal videos, and explore others. Then users decided it should also be a storage container for all media production. This is a very rich model for education. Such a database, if organized, could serve the world as the Rosetta stone of moving image information. The lack of form inherent in YouTube provided its popularity but it also makes the site impossibly chaotic. Being user and culturally generated from the beginning, business, arts, and academia, recognizing the potential strength of YouTube, have always had continued troubles lassoing the beast. Alexandra Juhasz details the failures of the media as a tool for teaching, or any other rigorous intellectual activity in her essay, “Why Not (to) Teach on YouTube.”19 In Fall 2007 she taught a class about YouTube, on YouTube, the only guidelines were, “all assignments had to be produced as YouTube comments or videos, all research had to be conducted within its pages, and all classes were taped and put on YouTube.”20 She explains that by midterm her class could detail the four major problems to the pursuit of greater knowledge imbedded in YouTube. The site lacked: communication, community, research,

and idea-building. She points to the juvenile behavior that exists in all aspects of the site. Stereotyping and slurs in comments and video responses have evolved into a lack of respect from most users of YouTube, which makes constructive debate impossible. Juhasz points out the lack of credible sources to cite from, no background information or media bibliography is required, and is rarely offered voluntarily for videos. Lastly user generated search terms and categories are inefficient, “For YouTube to work for academic learning, it needs some highly trained archivists and librarians to systematically sort, name, and index its materials.”21 So then what are people getting from YouTube? I think Juhasz details it quite elegantly: “The signature YouTube video is easy to get in both senses of the word: simple to understand- an idea reduced to an icon or a gag- while also being painless to get to. A visual or aural sensation holds the iconic center, or totality, of a video, an already recognizable bite of media performs the same function. This is media already encrusted with social meaning or feeling.”22 These Internet memes are wrestling away attention, becoming a dominant cultural game changer, like the new media technologies of the past. For a couple years, YouTube ran free as social memes saw fit while corporations, artists, musicians, and government all tried to stake some claim in the rapid wash of personal broadcasts, trying to find the unknown causes of trends and popularity.23 Then in March of 2007 media conglomerate Viacom filed a complaint against Google in court, as follows:

“Some entities, rather than taking the lawful path of building businesses that respect intellectual property rights on the Internet, have sought their fortunes by brazenly exploiting the infringing potential of digital technology. YouTube is one such entity. YouTube has harnessed technology to willfully infringe copyrights on a huge scale, depriving writers, composers and performers of the rewards they are owed for effort and innovation, reducing the incentives of America’s creative industries, and profiting from the illegal conduct of others as well. Using the leverage of the Internet, YouTube appropriates the value of creative content on a massive scale for YouTube’s benefit without payment or license.”24 CAPITALIST INVASION Viacom blamed Google for 1.5 billion separate copyright violations, and while still battling in court today, Google appears to have the upper hand in this case, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. “The web giant says that in passing the DMCA in 1998, Congress recognized that infringing material would pop up online and that requiring ISPs "to engage in an arduous screening process for every user-posted text, picture, and video would inhibit free expression and stifle the growth of the Internet."25 This lawsuit, and others concerning YouTube and copyright points to corporate jealously of media conglomerates who are losing advertising revenues and viewership of their own materials, they want their share of the pie. Since purchasing YouTube, Google has basically overhauled it, adding a plethora of

new services for users, but also bringing in and cooperating with major media outlets, corporations, and advertisers, in an attempt to commodify the virtual space that used to be free. YouTube increasingly serves as a reinforcement of the capitalist society it exists in. What could have been the new media of revolutionary ideas simply became the biggest shared marketing venture in history. “Typically it offers its audience little more than what Guy Debord once called ‘figmentary interlocutors’ who distract attention from the unidirectional characteristics of the discourse, which is ultimately based on a politics of commodities.”26 The Youtube of 2011 looks like any other traditional media space, or does traditional media now look like Youtube? The answer is yes. Both. It has changed the face of new media, but now it has been successfully snagged, copied. Integrated. When a user browses through Youtube they can expect up to two banner ads, an in-video imbedded pop up, sponsored videos that appear first in the “related section,” and now 15-30 second “pre-roll” advertisement depending on source video length. Copyright issues have been solved with a implementation of a content-identification system, which is a complex algorithm that detects the metadata in video while being uploaded.24 Its advanced detection techniques can match down to a frame of registered content, despite quality, speed, or effect distortion. This sends the information immediately to the companies that own the original material. Usually the “stolen” or remixed content is transformed back into intellectual property (mp3s, books, concerts, movies,

dvds) and advertised back to the user who is subverting the company in the first place by using Youtube. An even more frightening thought is that these commodities increasingly exist only in the virtual world. Intellectual property and trends are increasingly valuable and become commodity in the virtual society. YouTube becomes a space that fuels the continued consumption of virtual commodity through promotion and self-reflection. “In other words, YouTube is often a cultural engine of popularity instead of populism, in which the power laws by which it functions largely protect the status quo (cooperate culture) instead of challenge it.”27 HEALING THE BLUES Not surprisingly there are a number of people who see, like I do, the incredible potential for a wide-spread internet database, with a focus on the fixing the major problems inherent in Youtube, technically, and conceptually, providing solutions to the lack of communication, community, research, idea-building, and (I would add) video quality. Again, Juhasz elegantly explains her desires, and in turn her disappointments with Youtube: “While I have always been aware that I am a performer, entertaining my students while sneaking in critical theory, avantgarde forms, and radical politics, much of what I perform is the delight and beauty of the complex: the life of the mind, the work of the artist, the experience of counter-culture. I am not interested in teaching as a re-performing of the dumbing-down of our culture.”28 For those in life with this point of view, there is Vimeo.com. A beautifully

designed video sharing site which was surprisingly registered before youtube.com and follows a similar, but less popular time-line. It seems to be continuously offering just slightly better features to a slightly smaller, but more professional community. A side column called “The Buzz” is on Vimeo’s late 2006 webpage, which is full of quotes comparing them to the tube. “Vimeo feels a lot more like a community, a place where you’d want to hang out.”29 In 2007, while Youtube was getting criticized for willingly handing over the information logs of all the users who viewed or remixed infringed Viacom material, Vimeo’s front page dispayed this message: “Use Vimeo to exchange videos with only the people you want to. We have a bunch of different privacy options so you can choose exactly who can see your videos, and others can do the same.”30 Vimeo was the first site to do HD video encoding properly and gained reputation throughout the independent art and film communities.31 Vimeo only advertises Vimeo related content, either events it is sponsoring, or more likely their service: Vimeo plus.32 Most importantly, Vimeo staff is very present in the community, liking, and picking the videos that appear on the main page. The community is populated with respectful, curious individuals, who help, support, and critique each other. Vimeo features user-generated groups, but staff-generated categories, which allow multiple levels of archiving and distribution. Youtube reflects a failing system, in this sense I am glad it exists. Every failure needs a success, good is only definable through the existence of evil.

Youtube like all other previous platforms of media distribution has been implemented in the spectacle. Vimeo is the emerging platform of democratic media, the new utopia.

NOTES
1. “YouTube is a video-sharing website on which users can uoad, share, and view videos, created by three former PayPal employees in February 2005.[3] The company is based in San Bruno, California, and uses Adobe Flash Video technology to display a wide variety of user-generated video content, including movie clips, TV clips, and music videos, as well as amateur content such as video blogging and short original videos. Most of the content on YouTube has been uploaded by individuals, although media corporations including CBS, BBC, Vevo, Hulu and other

organizations offer some of their material via the site, as part of the YouTube partnership program. Unregistered users may watch videos, and registered users may upload an unlimited number of videos. Videos that are considered to contain potentially offensive content are available only to registered users 18 and older. In November 2006, YouTube, LLC was bought by Google Inc. for $1.65 billion, and now operates as a subsidiary of Google” – YouTube Wikipedia Page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YouTube)

2. Arrington, Michael “YouTubes Video Streams Top 1.2 Billion/Day” Tech Crunch Website
Journal http://techcrunch.com/2009/06/09/YouTube-video-streams-top-1-billionday/ (June 9, 2009) 3. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, stanza 11 4. Debord, Guy Society of the Spectacle (Black and Red, Detriot, MI, 1970, reprinted 2010) Stanza 4 5. “Zoinks! 20 Hours of Video Uploaded Every Minute” YouTube Blog (Ryan Junee, Product Manager, The YouTube, May 20, 2009) Team http://YouTubeglobal.blogspot.com/2009/05/zoinks-20-hours-of-video-uploaded-every_20.html 6. “Me at the Zoo”, http://www.YouTube.com/watch? v=jNQXAC9IVRw&feature=player_embedded, jawed 7. “jon stuart on crossfire” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFQFB5YpDZE, atvartist 8. Mitchem, Matthew “Video Social: Complex Parasitical Media” Video Vortex Reader (Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2008) pg. 275, pdfs and additional reading available at: http://networkcultures.org/ 9. Hilderbrand, Lucas “YouTube: Where Cultrual Memory and Copyright Converge” Film Quarterly, Vol 61, No.1 (University of California Press, 2007) pg 49 pdf: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2007.61.1.48 10. “Google buys YouTube for 1.65 Billion” BBC News Website, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6034577.stm (Oct. 10 2006) 11. Time magazine declared “You” person of the year in December 2006, referring to youtube: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1569514,00.html 12. Sherman, Tom “Vernacular Video” Video Vortex Reader (Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2008) pg 161 13. Silverberg, David ”New iPhone 3GS Could Create Surge in Civilian Journalist Reports” http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/273873 (June 9, 2009) 14. Sherman, “Vernacular Video”, pg 163 15. See Cubitt, Sean “Codecs and Capability” Video Vortex Reader (Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2008) pg 45 16. “*-BMX 03-* Filmed of My Camera Phone (Razor)”, http://www.YouTube.com/watch? v=HTAD9s_OzLc, bmx3flatland 17. Flash Video Primer, Adobe 2004, www.adobe.com/devnet/flash/articles/flash_flv.pdf 18. . Hilderbrand, “YouTube: Where Cultrual Memory and Copyright Converge” pg 54 19. Juhasz, Alexandra “Why Not (to) Teach on YouTube” Video Vortex Reader (Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2008) 20. Juhasz, “Why Not (to) Teach on YouTube” pg 134-135 21. Juhasz, “Why Not (to) Teach on YouTube” pg 138 22. Juhasz, “Why Not (to) Teach on YouTube” pg 136 23. Some examples of strangely popular videos: “An experiment” 168 million views: http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=6Jlv8F9cerA “Pregnacy Booser Clomid” 128 million views: http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=xpyNpn-

TshQ “Video Strobeoscopy of the vocal chords” 93 million views: http://www.YouTube.com/watch?
v=ajbcJiYhFKY

24. Viacom v Google, Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief and Damages, can be
found at: http://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/newyork/nysdce/1:2007cv02103/302164/1/ 25. Gardener, Eriq “Google answers Viacom in YouTube Appeal” The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/google-answers-viacom-YouTube-appeal173922 (Apr. 1 2011) 26. Losh, Elizabeth “Government YouTube” Video Vortex Reader (Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2008) pg 111 pdfs and additional reading available at: http://networkcultures.org/ 27. Losh, Elizabeth “Government YouTube” pg 111-112 28. Juhasz, “Why Not (to) Teach on YouTube” pg 138 29. The Wayback Machine: Vimeo, Aug 30 2006 http://replay.waybackmachine.org/20060830081327/http://www.vimeo.com/ 30. The Wayback Machine: Vimeo, Aug 2 2007 http://replay.waybackmachine.org/20070804154022/http://www.vimeo.com/ 31. Kirkpatrick, Marshall “Vimeo offering HD Video Option”, http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/vimeo_hd.php (Oct 16, 2007) 32. See: http://www.vimeo.com/plus

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