While discussing YouTube, José van Dijck argues that the site’s interface influences the popularity of videos through ranking tactics that promote popular favourites (Reader, page 94). How do ranking tactics impact on the formation of online ‘communities’?
YouTube is the online mecca for self-expression. It provides a platform for any and everybody to share their talents with the world. More importantly, however, is that this sharing promotes the development of user communities with a “communal preference” (Van Dijck, 2009: 45) for something, from extreme sports to funny animal videos.
Van Dijck, however, argues that this process is not nearly as democratic as it appears. In fact, he argues that the site’s interface plays a significant and much ignored role in “steering the agency of users and communities” (Van Dijck, 2009: 43) through the ranking and promotion of particular videos. Yet since “rankings and ratings are vulnerable to manipulation, both by users and by the site’s owners” (Van Dijck, 2009: 45)—see the man who watched his own video 60,000 times!—when users are “steered towards a particular video” (Van Dijck, 2009: 45), there are also significant implications for the online communities that YouTube supports.
YouTube’s diversity makes it an effective means for communities of all sizes to promote and develop themselves. Theoretically. Users are suggested related videos and through these links can discover new activities and tastes. Yet, the “promotion of popular favourites” (Van Dijck, 2009: 45) based on views, ratings and comments, unfairly diminishes opportunities for more obscure and marginal communities by narrowing the spectrum of choice readily available. Even within related videos, the higher ranked ones appear first. It creates a vicious cycle in which the more popular videos are: promoted, viewed more often, made more popular and are then in turn promoted even more. Other and newer videos have less chance of being discovered in the first place and often fall by the wayside. And since YouTube videos are often “famous for being notorious, obnoxious, or annoying” (Burgess and Green, 2009: 24), the most popular videos are rarely those most worth watching.
[Image: Courtesy Blue Fountain Media]
**UPDATE: In April 2011 a YouTube techie revealed that a staggering 99% of YouTube hits come from a meagre 30% of videos! **
Perhaps most concerning, however, is not that the same videos are being watched, but rather that they are increasingly commercially made.
YouTube is fast becoming a prominent element “of the mainstream media landscape” (Burgess and Green, 2009: 15). Consequently, user-generated content is being overrun by commercial content with big budgets. In combination with ranking-based-promotion, marginal communities now have even less chance of being discovered because potential viewers are being bombarded with more professional, and arguably more popular content. At the moment, only one of the top 5 most viewed YouTube videos ever, is amateur made. The others, and the vast majority of that special 30%, are all commercial. They are music videos or television shows. A disturbing trend for a site based on User-Generated Content.
Viral marketing shows just how much the practice of ranking-based promotion can be exploited. According to a top marketing executive, “clandestine marketing campaigns” (TechCrunch, 2007) regularly fabricate controversial comments, pay blogs to embed videos and craft misleading titles all to maximise the popularity of a (commercially produced) video (TechCrunch, 2007).
Such promotion artificially influences user-agency, making it much harder for average users to stumble upon something that they may love but have never heard of. While anyone can still upload videos to YouTube, ranking-based promotion tactics and an influx of commercial content means that it is increasingly unlikely that more than a handful of procrastinating teenagers will ever watch them. Users are unknowingly being pushed towards mainstream content, undermining the development of innumerable user communities.
So, is YouTube ignoring you?
Yeah. It probably is.
Burgess, J. & Green, J. (2009) ‘YouTube and the Mainstream Media’ pp. 15-37 in J. Burgess and J. Green (eds.) in YouTube: Online and Participatory Culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Van Dijck, J. (2009) ‘Users Like You? Theorizing Agency in User-Generated Content’, Media, Culture and Society 31 (1): 41-58.
TechCrunch (2007), The Secret Strategies Behind Many “Viral” Videos, http://techcrunch.com/2007/11/22/the-secret-strategies-behind-many-viral-videos/ 22 November [accessed 31 March 2011]