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YouTube – how participatory is this participatory culture?

Ella Raymond (311253970) from Kai Soh’s Thursday 12pm-3pm class.

One of the SNS’s that most interested my during this course was YouTube, as it is such a unique co-creative environment. The participants can all be, at varying times “audiences, producers, editors, distributors and critics” (Burgess and Green 2009) and traditional concepts of media production and distribution are blurred. I am particularly interested in YouTube as a community for individuals who are outside the norms of their traditional society, such as women, queers and transgender people. Looking more closely at the way these communities utilize the platform raises question as to how open the participatory culture of YouTube is, and whether this platform is just a space for traditional concepts of consumerism and superficiality to rebrand.

YouTube began as a community focused around user created content (UCC). The slogan ‘broadcast yourself’ conjures images of individuals acting out the modern (or, some would argue, generational) desire for self-expression, and taking control of media production and distribution. It is a participatory culture; space where anyone who has a camera can “record, experience, visualize and memorialize” (Hinton and Hjorth 2013) Indeed, YouTube began as merely a platform that only existed because of the content created by its users, and its value is large generated by the collective creativity and communication built by its users and audiences. These users and audiences create communities through the videos that they post and the meta-text that accompanies these videos, such as the comments section and the ability to direct message. Audiences can interact with YouTubers (a moniker for creators who post content) in other ways, such as by choosing to subscribe to their channel and liking their videos.

Burgess and Green assert that one of the greatest achievements of YouTube is that it is a “genuinely empathetic space for identity-based communities” (p. 79) such as transgender communities. Video diaries of transgender people, especially during their transition, are popular on YouTube. One particular transgender YouTuber, Gigi Gorgeous, has been making videos for the past 8 years documenting her transition from Gregory (male) to Gigi (female). Gigi now has almost three million subscribers and YouTube Red produced a biographical movie about her life that was released in 2016, which has received many accolades and has been applauded for its raw bravery. Jenkins and Hartley believe that YouTubers such as Gigi Gorgeous are creating communities and spaces where people can feel safe to discuss their experiences and represent their own identities and perspectives with like-minded people, as well as bringing issues around social identity, ethics and cultural politics into the public sphere. In this way, YouTube is a “potential site of cosmopolitan cultural citizenship,” (Burgess and Green 2009) particularly for those who struggle with traditional societal norms such as women, queers, and racial or ethnic minorities.

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Indeed, Samara Anarbaeva believes that the online community created by YouTube allows for the voices of those that have previously been silenced, specifically women, to be heard. Women’s voices are now outnumbering men’s voices on the platform. Further, youTube is gendered in the sense that women produce more personal videos than men, such as daily vlogs or video logs depicted ‘a day in the life’. Anarbaeva focuses her study on the ever-popular ‘beauty guru’, a name for a YouTuber (who is usually a woman) who runs a makeup channel. Many of these beauty gurus have created incredibly successful and lucrative channels and brands for themselves, with top beauty gurus estimated to earn around $50,000 per month from video views, advertising and sponsorship deals. Women of colour are also included in this participatory beauty culture, with one of the biggest beauty gurus Michelle Phan being of Vietnamese descent.

These videos are often instructional with a DIY underpinning, which encourages a participatory culture and builds communities of people with shared interests. Further to this, the community is built by the meta-text that accompanies these videos, such as the comments section. Anarbaeva notes that YouTube also has an informal mentorship program built into its participatory culture, in that experienced participants will help the newer members acclimatize. These beauty gurus are also using their popularity to speak up to create significant cultural content. Ingrid Nielsen recently met with Barack Obama to discuss the issues faced by her followers, while Louise Pentland of SprinkleofGlitter frequently speaks out about being a plus-size woman and the importance of body positivity.

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However, many question whether YouTube is indeed as participatory and inclusive as it may appear – does everyone have the power to broadcast themselves? Many scholars point to a ‘participation gap,’ as access to every level of engagement that the site offers may not be available to all members of the population. Hinton and Hjorth believe that creating content on platform such as YouTube requires some form capital (social, cultural and economic), which not everyone possesses. The site is also largely US-dominated, and Jenkins and Hartley note that only 15% of the videos on YouTube are in a language other than English (Hinton and Hjorth 2013). This raises questions around access to this participatory culture, and whether YouTube genuinely exhibits and celebrates cultural diversity.

In addition to this are the criticisms leveled at the beauty gurus commended by Samara Anarbaeva. Many argue that the focus on the ‘user’ or the ‘produser’ in Web 2.0 platforms, such as Youtube, is simply a trick to blur what is simply the same version of consumer culture playing out in a new technological age. These beauty gurus are entrenched within consumerism, as they ‘haul’ their recent purchases and recommend products to their viewers in videos that may or may not be sponsored – and Australian consumer law has not yet caught up with these complex sponsorship arrangements.

Further, Gowri Sunder questions the impact that the enormous influence of these beauty gurus is having on young girls. The beauty industry is notoriously toxic for young girls that idolize heavily photo-shopped bikini bodies and perfect teeth, and has a market impact on young girls self-image leading to issues such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders (Sunder 2017). However, one of the benefits of YouTube is that it is showing ‘real’ girls in ‘real’ situations. For example, when they do a makeup tutorial, the audience is privy to the ‘before’ shot of bare skin on a raw, untouched face.

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Therefore, the effect that YouTube is having on consumerism, superficiality and self-esteem is yet to be seen. What is evident, is that YouTube is a platform that affords the smart, thoughtful content creator many opportunities to connect with their audience and build communities around identities, such as transgender, that need safe spaces to express themselves and share experiences.

References:

Anarbaeva, Samara. 2016. “Youtubing Difference: Performing Identity In Video Communities”. Journal Of Virtual World’s Research 9 (2).

Burgess, Jean, and Joshua Green. 2009. “Chapter 5: Youtube’s Cultural Politics”. In Youtube: Online Video And Participatory Culture, 1st ed., 75-99. Cambridge.

Gorgeous, Gigi. 2013. I Am Transgender. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srOsrIC9Gj8.

Hinton, Sam, and Larissa Hjorth. 2013. Understanding Social Media. 1st ed. Los Angeles, CA [etc.]: SAGE.

Mueller, Bryan. “Participatory culture on YouTube: a case study of the multichannel network Machinima.” UK: Media@ LSE, London School of Economics and Political Science “LSE (2014).

Nilsen, Ingrid. 2016. I’m Going To The White House!!!. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKpch_KYVNM.

Pentland, Louise. 2017. Body Confidence. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCSQ80vSmHo&t=197s.

Sunder, Gowri. 2017. “Youtube Beauty Guru Culture Redefines Beauty Standards – The Tartan”. Thetartan.Org. https://thetartan.org/2016/1/25/forum/youtube-guru.

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