An anthropological introduction to YouTube
August 4, 2008 2:34 AM   Subscribe

Anthropologists in the digital domain tend to be a day late and a dollar short as far as us early adopters are concerned, but Michael Wesch managed to capture the popular imagination with his YouTube video, The Machine is Us/ing Us. He recently gave a presentation to the Library of Congress titled An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube in which he talks about the best of the web (not to be confused with The Best of The Web.)
posted by PeterMcDermott (29 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
This restored my faith in the positive potential of web 2.0 and information technology in general, after it had been torn asunder by the 'Weev and the evil trolls in 4chan land' FPP. Thanks.
posted by nudar at 4:45 AM on August 4, 2008


When learning about what goes on online I feel like a farmer in 1910, watching an automobile drive down the road. I know how to drive it, but not how it works or what to do with it. I know that it's the future, and I know that it will be useful and I can see that it is changing things, but it's just too new and complex. I'm already so far behind the curve that I don't see how I can possibly catch up in time for it to be useful for or to save me.
posted by nax at 5:24 AM on August 4, 2008



The first video is beautiful. I don't really buy into this whole the revolution will be Wiki'd and what not - we're still sitting in front of our computers when we probably ought to be going outside and talking to real people who live next door - but in any case, it's an elegant and poetically concise way of conveying his awe for what's happened right under our noses with this Internet thing, which went from being a dorky community of do-it-yourself projects to a bothersome digital shopping mall with pop-up ads and expensive porn to a startlingly teeming pool of collective input with a lot of free porn. Bravo.
posted by bukharin at 5:38 AM on August 4, 2008


...I don't see how I can possibly catch up in time for it to be useful for or to save me.

You're soaking in it!

The Average Joe in 1910 (or 1950 or 2005) didn't need to understand internal combustion to benefit from it or use it. Rising tide, black box, etc and so forth.

...we're still sitting in front of our computers when we probably ought to be going outside and talking to real people who live next door.

I'll never understand this "common sense" argument but I hear it all the time. How is interacting with people around the world via a computer any less "real" than people next door? How is "going outside" to participate in the human-manufactured activity of, say, baseball using human technological artifacts such as balls and mitts any more "real" than participating in the human-manufactured activity of, say, round-table discussions using human technological artifacts such as computers and the Internet?

Dismissing the Internet, or mental activities, for lacking a physical component is just anti-intellectualism. And that's bad.
posted by DU at 5:50 AM on August 4, 2008


we're still sitting in front of our computers when we probably ought to be going outside and talking to real people who live next door

What we should be doing and what we are doing are two different things. Regardless of what we *should* be doing, what we are doing is sitting in front of our computers and having the conversations that we used to have with a couple of neighbours, with thousands and thousands of people from all over the world.

That's not an exclusive thing -- people who would otherwise get involved in local communities and local politics can and will still do so. But it is incredibly liberating for those many, many people who aren't an easy fit into a community that's defined exclusively by geography.

The Library of Congress clip is a long-assed thing for a YouTube clip -- just about an hour -- but I found it interesting, entertaining and insightful. It really just expands on the first clip, but it does so in a way that I think constitutes the best of modern scholarship. Not only does he cite authorities and experts, he provides us with clips of the work that he's talking about, and gets their take on the subject. He also includes the work and the ideas of his students, showing how scholarship is a collaborative process, but attributing his students work and ideas to them.

If you're the kind of person who keeps up to date with this stuff, then there probably isn't going to be much in there that comes as a complete revelation to you, but it's a really solid and insightful overview, in my opinion, into where one particular digital community is at, at this point in history, and how that's impacting on the wider culture as a whole.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:57 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Worth repeating:

* In the entire 60 year history of ABC, running 24 hours a day 7 days a week, it produced as many hours of video as was uploaded to YouTube in the past 6 months.

* YouTube has new video, each day, at the rate of:
9232 hours Equivilent to 385 always-on cable channels.
200,000 3 minute videos.
88% of content is new/original (better than network TV).
Most is meant for 100 or fewer viewers.
posted by stbalbach at 6:04 AM on August 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


88% of content is new/original (better than network TV).

Well, if you count substituting breasts for philology as new, original or better than network TV.
posted by DU at 6:09 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]



That's not an exclusive thing -- people who would otherwise get involved in local communities and local politics can and will still do so. But it is incredibly liberating for those many, many people who aren't an easy fit into a community that's defined exclusively by geography.


True words. Looking back on my childhood in Texas, from which I was saved only by the refuge of the early Internet, I ought to have paid more respect.
posted by bukharin at 6:14 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


How is interacting with people around the world via a computer any less "real" than people next door?

People around the world who I know via computer can't keep an eye on my house when I go on vacation. Or lend me a cup of sugar. Or help push (or better, fix) my car when it breaks down half a mile from home. Or taste my delicious banana bread warm.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 6:14 AM on August 4, 2008


Well, if you count substituting breasts for philology as new, original or better than network TV.

Who doesn't?
posted by JaredSeth at 6:19 AM on August 4, 2008


Loved the youtube.

But I flared with irritation reading this quote from Michael Wesch (from the first link) about the mind-body significance of interconnectivity:

My friends in Papua New Guinea are experts in relationships and grasp the ways that we are all connected in much more profound ways than we do. They go so far as to suggest that their own health is dependent on strong relations with others. When they get sick they carefully examine their relations with others and try to heal those relations in order to heal their bodies.

It's not exactly medically authoritative.

Nor is it proof that his chums in Papua, New Guinea are terribly original.

I can't see the difference between the "profound" insight Wesch touches upon here - and, say, a trashy interview from the weekend's UK Daily Mail when the ex-wife of a UK celebrity moaned about the physical stress she suffered during the nasty break up with her ex-husband! And explained about how she bounced back when she recovered from her angry despair!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:20 AM on August 4, 2008


People around the world who I know via computer can't keep an eye on my house when I go on vacation. Or lend me a cup of sugar. Or help push (or better, fix) my car when it breaks down half a mile from home. Or taste my delicious banana bread warm.

Once again, you are defining physical as real. Mental is also real.
posted by DU at 6:23 AM on August 4, 2008


We're still sitting in front of our computers when we probably ought to be going outside and talking to real people who live next door.

Most of us are actually doing both. Why the need for false dichotomies?
posted by signal at 6:47 AM on August 4, 2008


People around the world who I know via computer can't keep an eye on my house when I go on vacation.

If you've set up webcams around house/outside you could keep an eye on your own house wherever you are (with a web connection of course).

They could lend you a cup of sugar but it may take a bit longer to arrive than popping in to your next door neighbour. Even more remarkable is that with the internet, rather than lend a neighbour some sugar, you could change a persons life from the other side of the world. All you need is imagination, but the connectivity, communication and everything that goes with it is there for you to use.

They may not be able to help push your car but if you have a mobile connected to the internet you could easily get in touch with a friend who knows a bit about computers. If your camera has photo/video capabilities then it is very possible they could guide you in fixing the car.

The internet is, without a doubt, fucking Awesome.
posted by twistedonion at 6:59 AM on August 4, 2008


People around the world who I know via computer can't keep an eye on my house when I go on vacation.

What, no webcam?
posted by erniepan at 7:35 AM on August 4, 2008


I saw the Library of Congress presentation last week, via a post on darkroastblend. When I saw it was a 58 minute video (and the Library of Congress) I figured "BORRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR-ing".
Boy was I wrong.

Then as I watched it, I thought "a university anthropologist STUDYING YOUTUBE? What a wanker!"
Boy was I wrong.

He's ahead of the curve on this one, which makes his observations in the 2nd link of you post all the more thought provoking.
posted by spock at 7:41 AM on August 4, 2008


When I saw it was a 58 minute video (and the Library of Congress) I figured "BORRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR-ing". Boy was I wrong.

That was precisely my original response to it, spock. Normally, I avoid this stuff like the plague. Normally, it's either outdated by the time it appears, or so banal as to not be worthy of my attention. So I wouldn't normally bother even clicking on a link like this, and I'm not at all sure why I did. However, once I clicked, I was hooked.

By putting the Numa Numa boy as his lede, and talking in a way that was insightful, respectful and affectionate about that clip and the transformative power of remix culture, he had me hooked from the start and watching the damn thing from beginning to end.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:47 AM on August 4, 2008


I watched the hour long video a couple nights ago myself, and I too found it moving and poignant. It's totally worth the length (which flew by) and renewed my faith in the internet to change lives.
posted by mathowie at 7:49 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


I can't see the difference between the "profound" insight Wesch touches upon here - and, say, a trashy interview from the weekend's UK Daily Mail when the ex-wife of a UK celebrity moaned about the physical stress she suffered during the nasty break up with her ex-husband!

I don't know where that quote came from, Jodi Tresidder. It wasn't in any of the clips that I watched, and at first glance, it sounds like your archetypal new age bollocks that the kind of slackers who engage in non-subjects like cultural anthropology are prone to.

But despite the complete lack of real supporting evidence in this instance, it doesn't actually seem that inconceivable to me that when your personal relationships are shot, your physical health is likely to suffer as a consequence of the stress that ensues.

I take your point though. It's the kind of statement that generally gets right up my nose as well.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:57 AM on August 4, 2008


I skipped around through the video, which was really interesting, but sadly I didn't see anything in his timeline about the comments on youtube, fortunately the youtube commenters provided their insight:

this video is so gay you quers comments are the best thing on youtube... other than smosh

And

Suck My´╗┐ Balls

Or

my god 55:33 im not watching this hole thing

(though, to be fair, taken as a whole and ignoring outliers like these, the comments connected to his video are far better than most at youtube.)

Youtube is indeed a fascinating cultural point-of-interest, but some of the more vocal members of it's community sometimes make me want to set things on fire.
posted by quin at 9:43 AM on August 4, 2008


Thought-provoking stuff. It's interesting to see McLuhan getting some new props. Thanks for posting, PeterMcDermott!
posted by carter at 10:05 AM on August 4, 2008


sadly I didn't see anything in his timeline about the comments on youtube

It's the section on The Anonymity of Watching YouTube.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:23 AM on August 4, 2008


sadly I didn't see anything in his timeline about the comments on youtube

There was a bit, it was past the midpoint of the LoC lecture. He pretty much broke it down to the Internet Fuckwad formula, but used a bunch of anthropological mumbo-jumbo instead of pretty drawings.

This indeed was a fascinating post, and I watched the hour-long video despite the fact I was in the middle of a movie and it was the wee hours of the morning. I wonder what Professor Wesch would have to say about our little text-based early-adopter filtering community?
posted by carsonb at 10:28 AM on August 4, 2008



How is interacting with people around the world via a computer any less "real" than people next door?


"Real" is the wrong word here. "Real" is almost always the wrong word. I figured this out about 25 years while tripping on acid watching two friends argue about what or wasn't "Real". "It's all REAL, you idiots. Now shut up and listen to the music." The difference between Online and face-to-face interactions is exactly that: they're "different". And I'm glad to live in a world that now allows for both. Go Internet Go.
posted by philip-random at 11:20 AM on August 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


Probably useful to have a link to Wesch's website here.
posted by gudrun at 12:09 PM on August 4, 2008


Neuroarchaeology
posted by homunculus at 1:04 PM on August 4, 2008


I'd like to nth the fact that the LoC lecture is worth watching. Smart, funny, informative, uplifting.

I'm really glad that there are people watching, cataloging, studying the culture of things like YouTube, and recognizing a) their importance in the world both now and in the future and b) the surprising, fascinating ways that they foster communities and the exchange of information. I was happy to see the "troll" article too, even though it investigated an uglier side of the internet social scene, just because it means that that people are paying attention to all this crazy, amazing stuff that's going on.

So much of my life has played out on the internet. My tumultuous adolescence was documented in several long-since-deleted livejournals, for an audience of people I'd never met who soon became my closest friends. My first real romance was conducted over AIM with a kindred sixteen-year-old soul I never met face-to-face. I remember my horror and rage when I found out my mom was reading my private internet journal. I wanted my overwrought musings on despair, sexual orientation, and self-discovery to be read by strangers thousands of miles away, not by anybody who knew me for real. This is the sort of context in which ever-increasing numbers of people grow up-- familiar things like adolescent angst sprouting whole new dimensions, the world of Megan Meier hanging herself, of me falling in love.

Maybe it's my distorted sense of self-importance speaking (thanks a lot, web 2.0), but I think it's a world worth taking note of.
posted by bookish at 8:33 PM on August 4, 2008


This was brilliant--and I say that as someone who never watches anything longer than five minutes, but I watched the whole thing.

Regarding this post:


My friends in Papua New Guinea are experts in relationships and grasp the ways that we are all connected in much more profound ways than we do. They go so far as to suggest that their own health is dependent on strong relations with others. When they get sick they carefully examine their relations with others and try to heal those relations in order to heal their bodies.

It's not exactly medically authoritative.

Nor is it proof that his chums in Papua, New Guinea are terribly original.

I can't see the difference between the "profound" insight Wesch touches upon here - and, say, a trashy interview from the weekend's UK Daily Mail when the ex-wife of a UK celebrity moaned about the physical stress she suffered during the nasty break up with her ex-husband! And explained about how she bounced back when she recovered from her angry despair!


There's actually a ton of data about the importance of relationships for both mental and physicial health. It starts with babies: if they don't get physical affection and attention, they can literally die. One study from the 40's found that 1/3 of babies raised without physical affection in a sterile orphanage actually died! Google "failure to thrive" for more on this. There's rat and monkey data, too.

If infants are raised in orphanages without enough physical affection and individualized care and do manage to live, they can develop a syndrome that looks like autism if you don't know their history. The damage can be permanent if the neglect lasts long enough. There's a study on this recently published in Science, I believe, in relation to Romanian orphanages that got that government to finally use foster care instead.

With adults, there's the entire body of literature on the health benefits of good marriages, the "broken heart" syndrome when one spouse dies, and the data on how having a healthier social network improves all manner of health outcomes. In terms of mental health, there's much, much more. I am too tired to post references but can provide on request.

And then there's the Whitehall studies, showing how social status affects health: lower social rank is worse for you than smoking (though smoking makes it even worse).

So, yes, there's tons of nonsense about how you can heal from cancer by thinking positive or get cancer from holding your emotions in-- it's nonsense. But the effects of relationships on health only *sounds* woo-woo. It isn't when you consider that we are a social species and that social relationships are critical for survival and reproduction in humans so it's unsurprising that they would affect health.
posted by Maias at 7:46 PM on August 6, 2008


we're still sitting in front of our computers when we probably ought to be going outside and talking to real people who live next door

Pepperidge Farm remembers.
posted by stavrogin at 7:42 AM on August 15, 2008


« Older The Pigeon   |   Found You Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments