TOUR #3: Popularity, February 22, 2008
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
This 2008 blog post is connected to my YouTour project where, after teaching the 2007 LFYT class, I attempted to create on YouTube a structure to think through, display, and organize the hundreds of student videos made for the course, which were (like other videos on YouTube) hard to systematize, see, or make sense of via our class page. I created tours around six themes: community/archive, owner/user, vernacular, popularity, entertainment, and education. As was true for the entire project, I was attempting to hack YouTube to force it to do the things I needed as an educator and scholar: organize, track, build, map, and otherwise make randomly displayed information more coherent.
In her work on the unpopular, Jutta Trviranus explains: "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]

There is a growing body of academic work on the representation of race in cyberspace. Artists, students, and activists contribute to these conversations as well.

The consolidation of corporate ownership of the media, and its effects on democracy, are much discussed by academics, journalists and citizens: "What if you woke up tomorrow to find that Yosemite National Park had been turned over to Chevron? Or that the Everglades were now under the watchful eye of DuPont? Most people would agree: Giving corporations nearly unlimited control over a precious public resource is unacceptable. But that's exactly what we've done with our airwaves and media—delivered them into corporate hands."[cit]
I guess you can see that I'm working on my performance, which is itself an aspect of popularity on YouTube. While I insist that any system of popularity creates and supports mediocrity—like in high school, the unoriginal and uncritical rise to the top: the blond babes of the pom squad—talent is still part of the picture, it's just talent in the name of the hegemonic (in high school, boys' sports, girls' sex appeal) and, on YouTube, the corporate (music videos, television shows).

Like high school cheerleaders, the popular on YouTube do what we already like, in ways we already know: they are interchangeable and indistinguishable. Entertaining but not threatening, popular YouTube videos speak to a middle-of-the-road sensibility in and about the forms of mainstream culture and media, pushing misfits into the weird cliques and hidden rooms of high school—what I call NicheTube—where one falls off the radar of popularity, underserved and unobserved because of YouTube's system of ranking.

NicheTube can function by the rule of originality, critique, difference, and zaniness (although much that is off the radar really wishes it could be on), but the work there (including Learning from YouTube) already speaks to the standards, conventions, interests, and winners on YouTube: the in crowd.

While it's often fine to be off the radar, doing your own weird thing with your wacky friends, in the rare event that others might be interested, given YouTube's size and poor search systems, it's likely that they'll never find you.

Sure, videos bubble up from NicheTube all the time and may even get enough views to be deigned prom queen for a day—"here's your tiara"—but chances are that any one golden video is a winner precisely because it's like something that's already won, only a tad different.

While we can all attest to whether popularity (or its reverse) worked for us in high school, I'll end by suggesting the obvious: It is not the best way to run a forum of knowledge/culture/art production and distribution.

As we learned through my students' project on race on YouTube, popular videos about black people reflect and reinforce the standard (racist) views of our society, while NicheTube videos support black self-love and politics. Like on television, YouTube provides you what you like, but rarely that you don't already know or ideas or images that could shake you, change you, or trouble you.