In the May 2010 edition of the Literary Review of Canada Geoff Pevere reviewed Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People (University of Toronto Press). The following is a summary of the review with responses by the author, Michael Strangelove.
Pevere's review takes the sociological significance of YouTube seriously. Unlike more frivolous commentators, such as Andrew Keen, Pevere treats the subject of Watching YouTube - amateur videographers - with the respect that they often deserve. As to the author (myself), he rightly notes that my "palpable excitement over what is happening [on YouTube] is anchored to both a historical awareness of interactive YouTube's antecedents -- like home movies and analogue videotape -- and a weighty methodological rigour." A fine compliment that acknowledges the three years of research that went into the book and the 412 sources and 588 endnotes that make up its scholarly apparatus.
Pevere kindly acknowledges that I carefully avoid the often-seen error of proclaiming yet one more Internet revolution. I am "wary of making any over-revolutionary claims for YouTube" while also being "convinced that something sociologically significant has taken place." True enough. Why write a book about something that is of no consequence?
Having followed the Internet and related media theory for almost twenty years now, I made every effort in the text to make it clear that I am not cut from the same cloth of techno-utopians or technological determinists. The future of the `Tube and society itself remain unwritten and I have no interest in playing the role of a McLuhanist new media prophet. There is money to be made in selling silicon snake oil to a public that wants a clear picture of the digital networked future, but most of YouTube and its future is still drawn in grainy low-resolution images. While YouTube is of great significance, we do not yet fully understand the nature of its significance, its final state, or all of its probable consequences.
The reviewer notes that YouTube is "arguably the most pervasive medium for public dialogue since the rise of the democratic voting system" - an interesting analogy that compares the social significance of YouTube to the rise of democracy itself, which indeed may be the case given the intensely undemocratic character of the mass media of the 20th century. Yet the reviewer gets distracted by the entertainment value of YouTube and misses the main points about its social significance that I delineate in Watching YouTube, an issue to which we shall return shortly. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that:
"what is shaping up there [on YouTube], to the tune of billions of user-made, -generated and -traded home videos, is what may be the most spectacular manifestation so far of the digital technology-driven shift from what has been called the old read-only (RO) technology to the new read-write (RW) forms of media . . . there is more to this phenomenon than the billions of minutes of user-generated images that currently occupy so much of the content of the internet and the attention of its users: the very fact of this communications tsunami compels a complete rethink of so much media theory." Rethink indeed.
The bulk of our thinking about the audience's relationship to media in the twentieth century was restricted to the institutional character of content (produced by professionals) and the economic and structural character of the delivery system (privately owned, one-way commercial media):
"It was this closed-system model of media influence that gave rise to the once widespread criticism of the media as the mass hypnotist of public wants and desires, a hypodermic anaesthetic fired directly into the heart of a supine, powerless and oblivious body politic."
YouTube and amateur online videography more or less completely shatters the old coordinates of professionally-made, privately-owned, and broadcast-based that were used for close to a century to explain media, content, and audiences. But if the old media system was simply described as a hypodermic needle that injected meanings directly into a hapless audience (which it never really was, and they never really were), one might think I have drawn a straw man to describe the complex relationship that the 20th century's active audience of had with its old master, commercial media.
In Watching YouTube I draw a clear distinction between the active audience of mass media, and the hyper-active audience of online media. The analogue audience was active only as weakly-empowered interpreter of meanings (which were only shared in a local context) while the digital audience has significantly greater powers of production (which generate globally distributed online videos). YouTube, the Internet, and digital cameras have transformed the audience from a locally significant interpreter of commercial media to a globally influential producer of entirely new cultural products.
In the end, Pevere does exactly what a good reviewer should do - he gets to the heart of the matter and summarizes 80,000 words in one sentence:
"YouTube has given voices to those members of society most likely to be presumed disenfranchised by the old model of mass media influence, and the growing cacophony of formerly marginalized perspectives has inaugurated an unforeseen dilution of the mainstream media by alternative influences."
This is precisely Watching YouTube's main argument. Marginal voices are moving center-stage, and mainstream media's influence is being diluted.
It is unfortunate that Pereve, a film and movie critic, approaches the book as if it should have been a scholarly version of Siskel and Ebert. I explicitly state in the Introduction that Watching YouTube is not an interpretive tour of YouTube videos but a survey of its broader social patterns and significances.
Yet Pereve would have preferred a "discussion of the actual content of YouTube's user-generated videos -- testimonials, pop culture parodies, domestic spats, video blogs, funny pet spectacles." This is an odd criticism as I certainly do take the reader on a journey through wedding videos (White Trash Weddin - analyzed at length), pop culture parodies (the countless Downfall memes, analyzed in three different instances), domestic spats (Tricia Walsh Smith), video blogs (numerous examples), funny pet spectacles (The Engineers Guide to Cats) and much more, so his accusation that these are "cited more than probed" is quite misleading. A wide variety of videos are explored, probed, and explained and serve as examples that typify the broader social significance of amateur online videography.
While Pereve accuses me of failing to provide the reader with "an insider's perspective on the culture" this is precisely what one will find in Watching YouTube - an intimate exploration of YouTube's culture in the tradition of media ethnography. Consider the assessment of the book by Michael Wesch, renowned anthropologist of digital culture, "Strangelove provides a solid analysis of a wide variety of emerging YouTube genres, interactions, and communities." Heady praise from the man whose anthropological analysis of YouTube culture have attracted over twelve million viewers.
The reader of Watching YouTube will encounter my bride, my father and mother, my friends, my Barbie art, my students. They will `watch' or read about me shaving my head (à la Britney Spears melt down), faking a tantrum in class, and pondering the nasty feedback a video artist can get from the YouTube community. How much more `insider' can you get?
Along with in-depth treatment of famous videos such as Charlie Bit My Finger I also discuss numerous videos that will be entirely new to most readers so as to avoid going over well covered ground. Similarly the complaint that "numbers are cited endlessly as evidence of the network's size, influence and ubiquity" is hardly fair. Aside from barely two pages of statistics in the Introduction and a sprinkling of data throughout the text Pereve overstates the "cited endlessly" nature of my presentation of data. Indeed, given the modest historical significance of Watching YouTube as one of the first books to explore such a global phenomenon and the paucity of empirical research on YouTube, the reviewer might well have said that I bring solid empirical justification for taking the size, speed, and trajectory of amateur online videography seriously where such numbers are otherwise quite rarely encountered. Some people are just hard to please...
Aside from these minor complaints, Pereve pays Watching YouTube a great compliment when he suggests that the case made is "fascinating, pertinent [and] substantial":
"Essentially, Strangelove is arguing that YouTube may be subject to contradiction (it is, after all, a corporate entity that hosts millions of individual contributions), prone to reactionary unpleasantness (there is a lot of hate and stupidity on display), rife with advertising and hustle and filled with untold hours of vapid triviality, but that this might be the price paid for a truly democratic public forum in the post-digital world."
Unfortunately, in the end Pereve mistakenly reduces the significance of the thesis of Watching YouTube to its contradictions, "By eroding certain conceptual barriers once thought unbreachable, it [YouTube] may be demonstrating nothing quite so forcefully as the possibility of a future with vigorously thriving contradictions." But there is so much more to the text than the conclusion that YouTube is rife with contradictions.
A pity that Pereve did not highlight the other thesis of Watching YouTube - the quite probable nefarious impact of amateur online videography on privacy, childhood development, and identity formation. Or the implications for political debate and public memory. Or the character of the emerging post-television audience. Or the feminization of the Internet (I cannot wait to see how certain scholars react to that one...). Or YouTube's potential to erode our rights of fair use.
Nonetheless and all in all, an author could not ask for a fairer, more gentle, and respectful review.