YouTube Time Machine

The post from last semester, “Bringing Historical Order to YouTube,” focuses on a website designed to bring together the emotional and nostalgic feelings of a given year through a collection of YouTube videos. is a fairly user friendly website that allows a visitor to pick a date, from 1860 to 2012, and the site will generate a playlist of videos (with recent years numbering in the thousands of videos) in the categories of Video Games, Television, Commercials, Sports, Current Events, Movies, and Music. Chronology of the videos is dependent on content rather than upload dates, differing it from YouTube itself.  In the words of site founders, the site was intended to make the user feel like they had traveled back to a certain year, to feel for example “it was 1996…the feeling of being in 1996…the intangibles of that year” without “getting bogged down in the specifics and having to make CHOICES…”  The site promises to give you a flavor of a given year, and for the later half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, the site delivers.

The original poster, Tom, commented that as a tool for the collection of public memory successfully hits the nail on the head.  However, he ends the post with a question: “What other ways could be used as a historic tool?”  The commenters reacted fairly positively to the site, with Ethan Klapper going as far to say that “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.” Tracie Peterson agreed that “ certainly has the potential to become a useful historical tool.”

Personally, I have deep reservations that it should be “required” for historians studying anything from the Civil War forward to visit the site.  Perhaps just an off-handed comment, it fails to understand what I believe is YouTube Time Machine’s proper role in the field of digital history.  As a site for collective memory, I think is great. I also think it can be very useful for amateur historians, or even more usefully as a teaching tool for middle school and high school students.  Even in a college 101 history course, the website would serve as a great jumping off point for studying the 20th century.  It’s fun, interactive, and transmits information in a method (YouTube videos!) with which most students are already very familiar.   Most importantly, it takes the boring textbook out of history.

That being said, professional level historians, whether on a graduate or post-doctorat level, most likely know more about their given time period that yttm could possibly hope to teach them.  It’s great for nostalgia, and perhaps an individual’s personal interaction with history, but I fail to see any historian genuinely citing the website.  Even if some one did find something of note on here, they would most likely go back to the original source of the video (whatever archive or collection said material came from) to more accurately analyze the source.  Another original commenter brought up the issue of videos that contain content from different periods.  For example, there’s a Charlie Chaplin video that was edited to include music from The Cure.  As the author of the post stated “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.”  Categorization on the website doesn’t appear to be concerned with the potential historical dilemma such a video creates.

Overall the website is fun.  Who wouldn’t marvel at using a 2011 MacBook Air to watch a 1984 Apple commercial for the Apple IIC?  (And the number of stacks of 5 inch floppy disks it could store…)  That alone brought back memories of the giant Apple computer that dominated the back of my second grade classroom!   Hands down it could be utilized in a middle school or high school classroom for a great interactive lesson and/or project.  As a serious analytical tool for history research?  I have too many doubts.  I don’t see what the website could bring to the table that could not be more authoritatively proven via journal articles, books, and the primary source materials from their original collections.    What are your thoughts?

4 Replies to “YouTube Time Machine”

  1. I agree with your post. One of my biggest reservations about using new or “cutting-edge” technology as an educational tool is that it can neglect to offer astute intellectual insights. looks like it can provide a great introduction to a topic and can ignite a thoughtful conversation. Like you, however, I am concerned that it doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities to spark thoughtful analysis that goes beyond the surface level. Utilizing current technology is great, but I do not think that it should replace academic journals or other traditional forms of scholarly communication that you mention.

  2. Laura –
    Why haven’t I heard of this before?? This website is fascinating and if I weren’t at work right now I’d play with it for hours. I do think this would be a fun tool for perhaps middle school students to use in their Social Studies class, but (like you) am having a difficult time wrapping my mind around the idea of YTTM being a serious analytical tool. However, nostalgia is (I believe) a growing topic of study itself. Perhaps anyone studying nostalgia would find YTTM a beneficial tool in examining how our society today uses digital media to present “nostalgic resources” to the public.

  3. Enjoyed both this post and the discussion. The pop characteristics of this site are really compelling and it is a neat place to think about how people use and interpret the past. At the same time, it has a range of problematic components to it in terms of rigorous historical elements. Lastly, how do you genuinely represent, on a timeline, a video that was created in 2010 with film from the 1920s’ and audio from the 1960’s. This sort of technical question is ripe for more thought from historians. I would love to hear others thoughts for how to get into a technical issue like this. As is so often the case, something seemingly minute and technical opens the door to an entirely new space for scholarly thinking.

  4. As others have said, it’s hard to look at YTTM as a serious research tool. However, I was intrigued by the fact that—for all intents and purposes—it acts as a sort of curator for YouTube. While obviously not as rigorous as true museum curator, it does provide a modicum of guidance to a website defined by its lack of an overall narrative. Perhaps YTTM isn’t good for much more than fun doses of nostalgia at this point in time, but I’m sure we’ll see similar and more comprehensive services in the future.

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