Bringing Historical Order to YouTube.

YouTube is a repository for public memory.  It’s about documenting what is in the zeitgeist now.  It also provides a glimpse at what we remember about the past, too.

That’s the premise behind, a website that attempts to provide some historical order to the otherwise chaotic YouTube.  It’s a sort of stream-of-consciousness archive of popular culture and current events in a given year.  Visitors to the site can search videos by year dating all the way back to advent of motion pictures in the late nineteenth century.  Videos can be filtered by categories such as current events, sports, video games, commercials, and television among others.

The impetus of the site is less historical than nostalgic.  As the site’s creators explain as they recount’s origins, “…it wasn’t specifically Jordan or Primal Rage videos I was searching for … it was 1996 … the feeling of being in 1996 …the intangibles of that year fascinated me, but getting bogged down in the specifics and having to make CHOICES eventually spoiled my quest.”

In other words, it’s like those VH1 clip shows, but without the often silly commentary.  Or better yet, with personal commentary provided by the viewer.  Or in our case, the historian.

The selection of videos archived on this site for a given year may be less than representative – but it’s fascinating from the perspective of public memory.  Just how do people choose to remember 1996  anyway?  What does it look like as a shared cultural moment?

What other ways could be used as a historical tool?


7 Replies to “Bringing Historical Order to YouTube.”

  1. Great post and neat site!

    I think the point you bring up about history and nostalgia is particularly interesting. The quote you mention taps into the kind of sentimentality we associate with nostalgia. At the same time though, I think there is something very significant about the idea of the "feeling" wanting to "feel" like it is 1996 again and building an interface to promote that. In other words, I think there is some very compelling historical work going on in trying to create an interface to these videos that might let us get some of that feeling.

    Also, independently finding, posting, analyzing content on the blog is a great idea! There is so much that is happening in this space right now that you can come across in so many different places and bringing that together here on the blog is a great idea.

  2. Nice Post, Tom.

    In my opinion, is a feature that the main YouTube site should incorporate, but doesn't. While's metadata includes when an actual video was uploaded, it fails to include the actual period that the content originated from. In the eyes of historians, this has got to be a gaping omission.

    Your cultural moment argument is an interesting one, because very easily allows oneself to immerse themselves into one or any of the categories that are on, like current events, video games, movies or music. With the Auto Play Videos feature, this becomes a StumbleUpon of sorts for video. You're able to select the year and exactly what types of videos you want to see, and does the rest.

    Quite honestly, a trip to should be required for any historian studying one of the periods covered on the site. Not to look for something specifically, but as a sort of cultural immersion.

  3. Thanks for the exceptional post, Tom!

    I checked out the site immediately after reading your post and I agree that certainly has the potential to become a useful historical tool. I, like Ethan mentioned, agree that they need to ensure proper periodization. As I am currently doing some research on WWI, decided I check out "the war years" which were as you said, "less than representative" but entertaining nonetheless. Charlie Chaplin set to The Cure was a particularly interesting addition for the year 1917! But, I digress. If this site, or a similar site, could provide collections of all available newsreels for any given year then I would be in heaven.

  4. Tracie –

    I think your comment about Chaplin and the Cure in 1917 epitomizes why I hesitate to call a history site. You're talking about footage that was shot sometime in the first quarter of the twentieth century, music that was made in the 1980s, and that was edited together sometime in the first decade of the twenty-first. That doesn't make the video any less enjoyable, and there's an interesting conversation to be had about the appropriation and reconceptualization of art across historical eras… Thanks to the prevalence of easy to use video and audio software, we live in a culture where remixes abound and are easily shared on platforms like YouTube.

    For that reason, to my mind, examples like the Chaplin/Cure video you cite belong more to the year 2011 on a timeline than they do 1917 or 1987, despite the vintage of the source material.

    Which gets to Ethan's point – YouTube metadata contains information about when a video was uploaded, because that is easy for to ascertain. If accuracy in historical dating is a priority (and to my mind, it would have to be for this to be a truly historical tool more than nostalgic one), seems like it will require a dedicated group of caretakers like the ones who police Wikipedia.

    All of that said, I love the potential here. I think this site or one like it has an important role to play for historians, and it's role that I can only see playing out on the web – as far as I know, video history isn't cataloged or documented in any systematic, comprehensive, searchable way. This may be a good model for the first step in that direction.

    1. Yes, from what I can see, is essentially an unusable historical tool for historians interested in the early 20th century. The only videos that are not reconceptualizations (i.e. The Chaplin/Cure video) are usually various popular film clips. For example, there are some pure, unadulterated Chaplin clips available for perusal but that type of source material is really only useful for historians interested in film history or pop culture. For a historian looking for actual or new footage of WWI this is a dead end.

      The potential is there, but if the goal is to capture and represent public memory or evoke the "feeling" of a time period than perhaps nostalgic pop culture is all we can expect. Making the effort to turn the site into a cataloged repository of historical video footage may satisfy the few historians that would use it for source material but may lower site traffic overall.

  5. I liked what was said about getting the feeling of 1996. As far as the debate about whether it is a useful historical tool….going back to the comment about the Charlie Chaplin video with 1980s music, I wonder if perhaps that does sorta work as a historical tool….for understanding American internet culture in the 2000s. Perhaps its/will be more of a reflection of our own time.

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