YouTube, Popularity, Inanity, Fun! (November 15, 2007)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
This 2007 blog post reflects on my students' interest in studying popularity. It also features the videos they made as part of this process and tries to connect this to my thoughts about and plans for teaching the class and about pedagogy more generally.
"The desire to fit in can be overwhelming for children. Our children look to model the examples of popularity they see on television and in magazines. They equate being part of a specific group with social status, personal accomplishments and good fortune. Fitting in—or feeling like you don't fit in—can affect a child's self-esteem, grades and communication and leadership skills."[cit]

According to Jutta Trviranus: "Theoretical proofs and empirical evidence show that diverse perspectives benefit groups, society and individuals. Current Web applications, by artificially emphasizing popularity, discourage this diversity."[cit]

What to do when you're bored: "You've checked your e-mails, updated your website, shopped online, used instant messengers. Now what? Do you sit blank after you've completed your daily internet tasks and have time to spare? Are you getting bored? Then here are some fun tasks you can do to kill those extra hours or minutes ;)"[cit]

However, it's this now-decade-plus-old algorithm that's at the heart of The YouTube Effect's thesis, which appears to be that a system that automatically recommends like-minded content for you to watch next (70% of all YT videos watched today are recommended through watch next and recommended for you panel), could - and has - lead to radicalization. Among the documentary's main characters is Caleb Cain, who was profiled by the New York Times in 2019 as someone who was "brainwashed" by YouTube's various far-right commentators. While it's not clear from the doc how Cain pulled himself out of it, he's now a vocal YouTube critic. Cain and others note in the doc that there's a pathway on YouTube from self-help videos to hyperbolic content. Watching all of it was, Cain says in the doc, "Killing my empathy, turning me into a sociopath." "[cit]
So, after the class decided to study "popularity" on YouTube—my students making an end-run on my best intentions for the course (which were to hijack YouTube to make it work against itself by making it "educate") by rerouting our attention back to what they really want from YouTube—we created an assignment, or contest really, where the student(s) who could make the most popular video in the class—the one with the most hits in two weeks—would win a prize (an automatic A on the final).

With a few notable exceptions, the videos are god-awful rehashes of paltry popular culture. A few—the highest rated among them—are stolen music videos that were reuploaded.

All the entries make use of erroneous or titillating titles, tags, and thumbnails mixed with ripped-off mainstream songs, artists, and images to make uninspiring, insipid, and inarticulate blips into the digisphere. Not that I blame them, they have studied YouTube seriously, and this is what they have learned works best to increase hits on its pages.

Meanwhile, the very atmosphere of the classroom has begun to reflect not the (slightly more) studious air we had exhibited for the first half of the semester, but a fun free-for-all where laughs, camaraderie, and playfulness define our interaction. We get little done, learn less than we did before, and have a good time at it.

Once again, the course well reflects what we are learning about digital learning and culture. We have often tried to parse the differences between entertainment and education, and this section has been helpful at that.

So, interestingly, the class decided today that we'd had enough of the fun. The students' best intentions seem caught between their interest in learning (the old or real way) and the fun they seem to have with popular culture and this inventive class that mirrors and remarks upon it.

For me, the few weeks we've spent thinking about popularity (something that has held little interest for me since junior high when I chose—against my feminist mom's best intentions—to be a cheerleader) has merely confirmed my worst estimations of YouTube, and of the generation that loves it. It will be interesting to see what they wish to learn in our final weeks.