How YouTube operates as a social network

How does YouTube operate as a social network? What kind of digital literacy can one gain from engaging with YouTube?

-Based upon chapters from YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green

Critical to YouTube is the understanding that content creation is less important than the actual utilization and operation of that content within numerous social network settings (58). YouTube videos serve “a range of communicative purposes” appealing to an equally diverse array of “communities and media subcultures” (58). For some, YouTube serves a purpose that many people may not immediately recognize–as a social networking space.

Often when people think of social networking sites, those such as Twitter, Facebook or the ever-creepy MySpace come into mind. However, as explained in “YouTube’s Social Network,” YouTube is (for a small portion of people) a place where “the video content itself is the main vehicle of communication and the main indicator of social clustering” (58). The chapter further explicates that those who are constantly on the web site contributing content and commenting on videos, etc. can be understood as making up YouTube’s “social core.” Moreover, those who “collectively identify and exploit opportunities to improve the way YouTube works through their own practices” are termed as ‘lead users’ (58).

Virginia Nightingale utilizes the work of anthropologist Algred Gell (1998) to help readers understand agency and exchange theories in relation to websites. Nightingale explains that, as demonstrated in the work of Gell, patronage plays a crucial role in determining the “conditions under which the creative work is produced and the environment of reception in which the image is displayed” (59). This notion relates back to YouTube as a social networking site because YouTube operates not as a producer but as a “platform-provider.” YouTube itself is the collaborative work of its millions of users. In this way, YouTube itself fosters an environment with potential for social networking of a unique nature. YouTube is a platform for “peer learning and knowledge sharing about all kinds of things” including digital literacy and beyond.

Banks and Humphreys work off of Nightingale’s discussion to explain that cultural-production relationships point to a shift in which “frameworks and categories of analysis…that worked well in the context of an industrial media economy are perhaps less helpful than before” (59). In sum, these authors argue that these relationships are destructive.

While some view these cultural-production relationships as destructive, others point to the benefits of a system like YouTube. For example, the chapter explains that through creative processes involving “uploading, viewing, discussing, and collaborating” a YouTube community is birthed. Artist Howard Becker called this kind of formation an ‘art world’–defined as “the network of people whose cooperative activities, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for” (1982). In this way, collective activities of YouTube members create a sort of social network, “forming an informal and emergent ‘art world’” that is unique to YouTube.

Intriguingly, YouTube was not chiefly designed to be a place for collaborative input. Compared to many other sites such as Flickr, YouTube does not offer the same “community-building” elements. The interface of the site is constituted by thumbnails of video clips rather than conversations between members, as seen on Facebook (for example). Furthermore, YouTube does not include common social-networking site elements like live video chat. So the question arises: why do some people utilize YouTube as a social networking space? The answer may lie in the fact that YouTube does have the benefit of extreme simplicity and usability. Perhaps these characteristics work to promote participation and reserve its ability to be ‘generative,’ encouraging the formation of a social-network community.

Those that use YouTube gain many digital literacy benefits. A few include being able to comment on each other’s videos, to edit videos in multiple programs such as Imovie, or to learn how to pause or skip forward in a video. Other benefits gained using YouTube exclusively include learning how to create a user account and monitor posted comments.

For those individuals that seek to mesh a live-video chat experience with YouTube, using Stickam (a social network involving video-chat) is a popular resort. YouTubers can engage with one another by keeping the same usernames in both programs. In this way, YouTubers who chose to utilize this supplemental technology gain digital literacy. The microblogging program 12seconds.tv provides a similar service. On another note, some YouTubers will use fantasticblabbing to create vlog entries and cross-post across many social networking sites. Even the ability to embed video links in the descriptions of YouTube videos has significantly added to the digital literacy of YouTube users. Posting YouTube links on Facebook has been another common phenomenon. In this way, using YouTube may often simultaneously improve an individual’s skill in a number of other programs.

As explained in this chapter, many YouTubers are interested in creating videos that examine and question the meaning of YouTube itself. Shout-out invitations are a good example of the YouTube community’s attempt to “navigate, shape and control the otherwise cast and chaotic array of content that exists in the network.” Moreover, using YouTube may help some users become more critical towards media messages, furthering their digital literacy. As explained in the chapter, digital literacy-in relation to YouTube-infers that users must be able to both create and reflect on video content while understanding the manner in which YouTube operates as a social network and a technology.

The chapter makes it apparent that YouTube invites the individual rather than a collaborative group activity. Therefore, “opportunities for collaboration have to be specially created” by YouTubers themselves, or via invitation from the company. Despite the seeming odds, YouTube continues to be a social networking space for some people. My explanation has thus made it clear that “YouTubers, as cultural agents, are not captive to YouTube’s architecture, and demonstrate the permeability of YouTube as a system. It connects with surrounding social and cultural networks, and users embedded within these networks move their content and their identities back and forth between multiple sites.” What do you think? Is YouTube a social networking site?

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