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The YouTube Response

The following essay is a response to “The YouTube Effect” by Moises Naim, which you can read online at Foreign Policy or theĀ Los Angeles Times.

Since the invention of Gutenberg’s legendary printing press, human communication has only kept speeding up. The advent of the internet and widespread use of smartphones mean that anyone in the world can connect with anyone else, across oceans and continents–provided that they have good tech support, of course. Our global communication infrastructure continues to expand, followed by equally momentous sociopolitical ramifications. YouTube exemplifies this phenomenon, reigning unchallenged as the most popular video-sharing website. Aside from hosting a prodigious number of cute cat clips and one-person comedy efforts, YouTube has proved to be the place where “the revolution will be televised.”

Critics are alarmed by the gore and horror waiting just a few clicks away from any web-savvy kid, but they forget that human violence has always been accessible to those who search for it (as well as accessible to unlucky bystanders and civilians). The content on YouTube is nothing new; humans have been interested in the same topics for centuries, and will be for many more. What is significant is that YouTube is Marx’s means of production pressed into the hands of the people. The website provides a publishing venue for anything that regular citizens see, hear, and think, available almost instantly to anyone anywhere–provided that they enter the right search term.

To be fair, YouTube only permits an illusion of democratized communication. After all, it is owned by Google, a company analogous to an online government: you can choose to operate outside of its strictures, but most people don’t bother with the hassle. Google doesn’t entirely choose what succeeds on YouTube, but they can make something popular or simply remove something else, at will. For the most part they don’t, because any content that draws traffic will lead to advertising revenue. YouTube doesn’t exist to give people a place to freely share what they’ve documented. Rather, it exists to make money for Google.

Nevertheless, YouTube provides both theater and audience for a flourishing short-form art scene. Web series have made the jump to TV, and careers have grown out of the ability to speak well into the webcam. Financial requirements for film production have plummeted, especially now that everyone’s phone captures video and myriad editing programs can be downloaded for free. Journalism is no longer exclusively professional. Big websites and TV channels routinely source content from YouTube (and their segments are parodied in return).

In “The YouTube Effect”, Moises Naim points out, “It is now harder to know what to believe.” Thank goodness! It is far better that people question what they see and read, cultivating healthy, inquiring skepticism. No one should simply accept whatever The New York Times publishes as unassailable fact. Prestigious news hubs are just as susceptible to bias and hoax as are individuals on the street. Later in the essay, Naim concludes, “the good news is that the YouTube effect is already creating a strong demand for reliable guides”, meaning trustworthy entities that will help us sort through the sheer volume of media being produced and shared.

The better news is that YouTube is just like every other advance in communication technology: it provides a quick, colloquialized way for people to share and connect. What brings us together? The same interests that always have: cute babies, money, sex, music, laughter. YouTube is simply part of the centuries-long trend of these topics 1) being shared faster and 2) being produced by more average Joes.

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