YouTube as the Voice of Dissent – Digital Proposal

YouTube has the potential to be the ultimate democratic tool for being heard – users do not even have to be able to read or write to reach an audience of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.   This seems to upset the received notions of mass media as a centralized operation, so capital intensive as to be controlled mostly by wealthy individuals or corporations.  How is YouTube allowing users to contend with traditional media outlets like television news in conversations about history, politics, and other social issues?  What are users saying, and how are they saying it?  What is the viewership compared to that of the traditional media?  How is traditional media responding – are they engaging this ongoing commentary at all, or are they attempting to keep above the fray to maintain the image that they are authoritative?

I propose to curate a web exhibit that attempts to document the ways in which YouTube users reply to, argue with, remix, and mash up traditional new media and the public figures quoted therein about history, politics, and social issues. These videos constitute an assertion of identity on the part of the users who create and upload them.  No longer does the traditional news media have such a disproportionately louder voice in documenting historical and political events.  Users have the chance to restate and refine public perception of historical events, registering them publicly, and arguing their own point of view about history.  My exhibit will take the form of a website that will host both typical and atypical examples of dissenting YouTube videos along with commentary on each, placing them into a larger social and historical context.

Videos such as the one in which Tea Party protestors actually confront a CNN anchor about what they perceive to be her biased reporting represent perhaps the most literal manifestation of YouTube users “talking back” to the traditional media. Other users are less confrontational and more humorous in their assertion of identity on YouTube.  Autotune the News satirizes news anchors and public figures by turning their words into performances of catchy original songs. Other users face the camera themselves, taking the media to task for what they perceive to be bias.  Sometimes these users don’t even need an entirely articulated, coherent point of view – just a lot of anger.  This particular user was exceptionally angry about the way he perceived that history was being written by media, as well as by contemporary politics in general.  Week after week for a very long time…  Many of these commentaries have thousands of views, while an unscientific survey of the CBS News Channel reveals a surprising number of videos with views in only on the double or triple digits.  Certainly, this doesn’t account for CBS’s television viewership, but it suggests that in the digital realm, from the perspective of traditional media, the inmates have inherited asylum…

I can find no scholarly research that deals directly with the phenomenon of YouTube users directly engaging the media to assert their own historical and social perspectives.  More often the commentary and research details how YouTube and other social media has been used to organize and disseminate information about political unrest in countries like Iran, Egypt, or the Sudan.  The YouTube users who register their discontent with the views expressed in traditional media by news organizations and public figures is in the tradition dissent literature and free speech on the part of common people that predates the American Revolution – the biggest difference now is the prominence and proliferation of this dissent.

3 Replies to “YouTube as the Voice of Dissent – Digital Proposal”

  1. This sounds like a really good project. One of the things that could be done with this is an exploration of how political sects and subcultures amplify their message through Youtube. Just about every cultist, crack-pot and conspiracy theorist out there has detailed Youtube manifestos where they try to use presentation and slick graphics to tailor their message, and the reactions they garner on Youtube tend to be out of step with their actual pull IRL. Thus, the creation of the Youtube celebrity culture around the chosen speakers of their field. The big issue is going to be limiting your scope, and being clear about what those limitations are. It sounds like you're already looking at the Tea Party, so stating up front that you're limiting yourself to American national politics is a great start.

  2. Hey Peter,

    Thanks for the comments. The points you mention about YouTube celebrity vs. real world influence are definitely on my mind – I find this fascinating. In the traditional media world, the size of your bullhorn depended much more how much money you had/how popular your points of view actually were… YouTube distorts those notions – being shocking can make you seem influential by boosting your views, even if 9/10 of those viewers are just coming for the freak show.

  3. I really like this project. I just wanted to make sure I shared these links I mentioned to you here on the blog so that if other people are following along with this they can see/add/trace how this is developing. Keep up the good work!

    I would suggest that you take a look at "Learning from Youtube" which
    MIT just published as an eBook for some ideas.…

    You should also think about some of the work that is going on under
    the headline of Citizen Journalism.
    Dan Gillmor is a go to here:

    Some of the work on participatory culture is relevant here:
    See also

    Some of Clay Shirky's books are also probably worth look at.

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