YouTube: videos are signs, watching is social

Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, writes:

“What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”

To say that YouTube is not just video hosting or video watching is stating the obvious. The social participation YouTube gets in the video posting, commenting, rating, and circulating is what made it the killer app of hosted video. It is precisely YouTube’s popularity that set it apart, and earned it the ability command a huge acquisition fee (read: head count. It was the audience head count, which to Google looked impressively like loyalty, and they may be right, which is why they’ll leave it as YouTube for a while and keep their little “video NEW!” link sandwiched between images and news)…

I asked in a recent post what the content of YouTube is, using McLuhan’s formula that a medium’s content is a previous medium: “This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.ā€ Then if the content of YouTube is television, its value was measured in terms of audience share (not advertising or programming quality). YouTube was clearly the biggest of the online video networks.

If the content of YouTube was television, but modified because it is online, then its formal content was television, its content as substance is viewers (users). And why is this so important? Because it would be a mistake to see YouTube in terms of its core value proposition: watching video. YouTube is a communication medium, and its real value lies in providing a marketplace “in” which people gather to pass around videos they like. “Watch this, you’ll like it” is conversation. It’s a statement, and YouTube is full of them. Look up Robin Williams and the first page of results are all the same 2 min and 19 second clip of Mr Williams doing a Scotsman inventing Golf. Why? Because posting is, as we learned from blogging, the fundamental act of communicating. Not reading. Not watching. (Not listening!)

This will all get more interesting as we look at the nature of utterances and communication involving video as reference. We need to compare YouTube and related phenomena to the blogosphere and to blogging. Ask yourself, what is it to refer to a cultural commodity or object, in a statement addressed to friends (or anonymously, to the world). What is that act? Is it a “look at this” act or is it a “look at me” act?

Or is it a “look at me looking at this” act? Let’s suppose that the videos on YouTube are like commodities, and that they have the sign value that we associate with fast cars, exclusive brands, and other status symbols. I’m not suggesting of course that some YouTube videos better brands than others ā€” videos aren’t brands. I’m suggesting that videos signify social relations.

Videos on YouTube, because they are on YouTube, accrue social significance. That a person wants to share a video with somebody, be it by telling a friend or by posting, or by commenting, means that person likes it. And wants to communicate that like. In a “public” setting, identifying with a commodity carries social connotations. I’m into guitar rock. Or stand up. Check out these Bush out-takes. etc. Each video, in addition to its own content, has a reflective signification also: to like something is a reflection of my likes. The particular (video) makes a general reference (this is my taste). That’s the social move. Association with videos can now become social, using the commodity form, as other commodities are social (the status symbols mentioned above). And they’re free! Fast! And the consumption of them is ephemeral, and it doesn’t oblige anyone to post one back, or to applaud, even to publicly agree.

The social works in online marketplaces like this by establishing a communicable interest between a user and his or her selections (books, videos, music, blogs, etc). If the interest were personal only, it wouldn’t need to be communicable. It could just make sense to the person and end there. Its communicability is a sign that it’s social. But in each medium, in each application (social software site, community, marketplace, etc) the site has to successfully create an audience/public, and successfully enable the linking of user to interests, and communication of these selections to individuals, groups, and the audience at large. One cannot really wait for the other. Hence the importance of viral marketing, and hence the advantage that has returned to first movers.

Our next investigation ought to be into the changing nature of sign value, of commodities as form and of our relations to each other through these mediators.

Technorati tags:
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,
,

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.