Toward A YouTube Ethics (May 2, 2008)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
This 2008 blog post marks my online dialogue with and about new media activists who try to use social networking to address social justice issues such as unfair working conditions.
According to The Sun: "Her emotional outburst lasted just six minutes but catapulted her to global internet stardom. British actress Tricia Walsh-Smith chose the unlikely setting of her kitchen to perform a bitter online rant describing her 'sexless' marriage to 76-year-old New York theater impresario Philip Smith. Next, she broadcast her diatribe on the internet, effectively starting the world's first YouTube divorce."[cit]

Privacy on the Internet raises legal, ethical, and personal issues about the limits, regulations, and abuses of disclosure.

Fair use is "the right, in some circumstances, to quote copyrighted material without asking permission or paying for it. Fair use enables the creation of new culture, and keeps current copyright holders from being private censors."[cit] It is often associated with the principles of copy left ("a general method for making a program [or other work] free, and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well"[cit]) and open source ("development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process."[cit])

One of my ten founding terms for this project is ethics: The lived power relations between humans that are mobilized by media production and reception are integral to its process and understanding.
I recently read online about grad students at the University of Iowa putting videos on YouTube about their working conditions. Then—no surprise—the English department chair called the "director of the videos to a meeting with other senior faculty members and asked for the videos to be removed from YouTube."

Although I wrote recently (with some disdain) about the Washington Post asking me to analyze the viral YouTube DIY video of a cuckolded socialite wife (Tricia Walsh-Smith)—who used YouTube to air her dirty relational, sexual, and financial laundry during a heated divorce—the graduate students' use (also from the bottom side of a historic power dynamic) reveals the previously unspoken (and unspeakable) economic abuse that allows large institutions to operate and therefore seems a somehow less sordid use of YouTube. Or does it?

It does seem crucial to begin to name what can vs what should be revealed through this global open mic. Those with little access to power, media attention, and the protections afforded by capital have never been able to so easily and widely express their critique of power. Is it okay to use YouTube to expose the private financial details of a marriage or the private financial relations of a university? Why should these be private? What of the penis size of a spouse, or the class load of a teaching assistant? What if you're drunk, lying, or parodying when you do it?

The "English TA Experience" page on Facebook runs a chain of email messages between the department chair and the graduate students, and it is introduced by an email "in defense of free speech" by Neal Bowers, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences and professor of English at Iowa State University, who writes:

"Mostly in private, and in collusion with his administrative staff—Dave Roberts, Connie Post, and Barb Blakely—Charlie has forced one of our graduate students to remove a posting from YouTube. He has accomplished this by meeting individually with various graduate students and, through an apparent process of intimidation, bullying them into surrendering one of their basic rights ... He justifies his actions by claiming the YouTube video contained objectionable material and subjected the department and the university to legal action. He also appeals to the need for fewer rights (just like Homeland Security and George W. Bush, only instead of saying in our 'post-9/11 world' Charlie alludes to the 'post Virginia Tech World of campus violence.'")

Of course censorship haunts this discussion, as it does all of YouTube (and the AIDS art world I've been discussing on my blog as well). It's easy to censor on YouTube: users do it all the time. When a video troubles you, you flag it. Enough flags and down it goes. Censorship is always the first (and devastating, and disciplining) move of institutional power against its fears of the many it keeps in check. It also marks the place of transgressions.