Preserving and clarifying collaborative contexts

The launch of YouTube in 2005 was quickly recognized as a watershed moment in the growth of social media and user-contributed content online. The ease of uploading and embedding video provided by YouTube made it accessible to a much wider non-specialist audience. Kutiman’s 2009 music and video project ThruYou builds on the subsequent explosion of homemade video content, using YouTube as its source material. Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel), an Israeli musician and producer, combed through YouTube, tracking down dozens of clips, musical and non-musical—homemade guitar lessons, piano recitals, amateur freestyle raps, random people screwing around with Theremins or synthesizers. He then used this raw material to create a set of seven original songs, looping and layering audio and video clips from a dozen or more sources to create each song and its accompanying video.

The project was a viral hit, garnering over 10 million views within two weeks and attracting a wide range of attention on blogs and in the press.  In the case of ThruYou, the significance of the work comes not only, or even primarily, from the musical qualities of the finished work itself. It more importantly comes from the process of its creation and its context inside the broader YouTube and internet communities. These aspects make it a rich work that is relevant to several contemporary trends and debates. As a result the context around the work is critical to its significance.

Stakeholders and significant properties

Numerous stakeholders would have an interest in the preservation of ThruYou. With many works, the creators are a key stakeholder. That aspect is a little more difficult to define in this case. Although at least some of the creators of the original videos were contacted by Kutiman and were supportive of the work, it seems likely that many were never even aware of the project. As for Kutiman himself, his interviews and statements make it clear that the collaborative aspect is crucial to his understanding of the project and its meaning. He includes detailed credits, with links to the original clips included in the description for each song, emphasizing the project’s connection to its source material and to broader context of YouTube.

The project has value to historians as well, particularly those interested in the internet and technology, as well as the cultural conversation around these topics. As the discussions sparked by the ThruYou demonstrate, the project serves as a rich example that unites several notable trends, including social media, user-created content, and debates about the role of copyright in the internet age.

Most notably, ThruYou takes advantage of and celebrates the growth of social and participatory media through the internet. The project only became possible as user-created media such as YouTube gained a critical mass, and it’s an example of the derivative works made possible by these developments, and the ways this material began to be utilized by and integrated into the broader culture.

ThruYou reflects the growth of social media and participatory internet culture not just in its production but also in its distribution and popularity. From a tiny initial audience it spread virally, reaching over a million viewers in less than a week. Notably, it was one of the early hits on Twitter; one article from the time notes Kutiman as the “first music star to be born on Twitter.”

The copyright implications of the project were also widely discussed. Kutiman used other videos largely without explicit permission (he included a disclaimer offering to take down a video if a creator objected), and distributed it freely on YouTube. Activists such as Lawrence Lessig blogged about the project, holding it up as an example of the cultural benefits of fair use and relaxed copyright restrictions.

Overall, much of the reaction to ThruYou discussed it as not simply an interesting musical project, but as something more broadly representative of contemporary culture, and indicative of directions that art and culture might increasingly take. It was seen as exemplifying the promise of internet culture at this moment in time, and so is useful evidence of the way the internet and social media were used and viewed.

In the art and music worlds, the project was seen as continuing previous trends and styles, while expanding their reach into the internet and social media realm. The Guggenheim Museum commissioned a ThruYou-style piece by Kutiman in 2010, comparing his work (YouTube link) to previous works of collage in film and other media. Other responses frequently linked the project to musical traditions of sampling and mashup culture. In both cases the novelty of the project is in how these ideas are applied in the emerging social media context, as the basic concepts are adapted to new technologies and bodies of potential source material.

From another historical perspective, preserving this project also preserves some of the culture it contains. The work is not only hosted on YouTube, it is literally made of YouTube. Early YouTube is already over a decade old, and some of the videos used by Kutiman to create these pieces have already disappeared. These come together to form a document of their time and culture, and the ThruYou project, in integrating them into itself, also preserves some sense of the interests, passions, hobbies, and lives of the people who chose to contribute to YouTube. The videos are a portrait of what YouTube was like at this time, and preserving them preserves some of this culture as well.

From a technical side, preserving ThruYou presents some potential challenges. Preserving the videos themselves is relatively simple. However, given the importance of the context of YouTube both to the creator and to the project’s fans and admirers, preserving a sense of this background is critical, but presents more difficulties. For example, the context of viewing the videos within the YouTube interface, with related videos alongside and links to the original videos in the description, helps to emphasize the collaborative nature of the project as a whole. Does this interface need to be preserved to some extent and made available to future viewers? The videos are also available at the website, where they appear embedded in a distressed and distorted version of the YouTube interface—but the interface as it appeared in 2009. So even preserving a current version of the work’s YouTube surroundings already differs from its original context. In making the work accessible to a future viewer, it will be important to find ways to make these shifting contexts understandable.

6 Replies to “Preserving and clarifying collaborative contexts”

  1. This is great. You nicely lay out the significance of the work and the context for understanding how it builds off the very nature of YouTube as a repository of source material. I completely agree that “process of its creation and its context inside the broader YouTube and internet communities” is where the heart of it’s significance resides. I really like that you brought in points from the Guggenheim perspective on the continuity of the work with collage in film and it’s connection to sampling and mash-up culture.

    All of that sets you up well for the next stage, which you rightly note is going to be technically challenging. You have the videos themselves, the source videos they draw from, comments and discussion on the video pages, and the website itself. So a key thing going forward is going to be parsing out how important each of these are to the case you’ve made for significant and thinking through what approach makes the most sense to get you the most value with the kinds of tools and techniques we have at hand.

  2. I think you do a really excellent job here providing broad context (YouTube, culture of collaboration) and tying it to the project. One of the big problems I struggled with while composing my statement of significance was making a case for Off Grid’s social impact. As you say, Thru You was a big hit and heralded as the promise of internet culture; however, Off Grid simply doesn’t have the same impact and–perhaps worst of all–it came after Thru You. This means that I can’t present Off Grid as a significant predecessor to Thru You or as a viral hit depicting contemporary collab-culture. In order to strengthen my case, I focused a good bit on Off Grid essentially as a more refined example of Kutiman’s use of YouTube as a platform (pop-up annotations, etc.).

    I did feel a little gross and elitist having to resort to this sort of value judgment, as in my heart I do feel that Thru You is pretty obviously the one Kutiman work that we’d throw in the time capsule to represent social and participatory media circa 2009. Was I attempting to draw blood from stone? I don’t necessarily think so, as I consider my reasons valid–but maybe just valid enough to store Off Grid alongside Thru You.

  3. Eric, great points about ThruYou as capturing a specific moment and confluence of trends in Internet culture. Looking back at 2009, isn’t that also the year people started going to Girl Talk shows in droves? They almost seem like two poles of remix culture: user-generated content built on user-generated content versus relentless parade of hooks & beats.

    Pedro, I feel you on the elitist bullshit anxiety, but maybe Off Grid enhances Thru You‘s significance. Maybe two video works makes a trajectory, not a one-off novelty act? Although by that logic, Scream 1-4 and Scary Movie 1-5 each constitute an oeuvre — which, why not?

  4. Oh, also: Curious if there are derivative works or tributes to ThruYou out there; and if such works would at all fall within the scope of your project.

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