Social media as a platform for agency. Audience, community and public in the analysis of YouTube

2/2008

Veikko Pietilä & Seija Ridell

The primary purpose of the article is to create conceptual tools for exploring more sensitively the multitude of activities taking place in YouTube and other so called social media on the web. YouTube is seen to provide a virtual public space where people engage in various modes of action, shifting between these modes and potentially also interrelating them in order to realise personal or joint projects that aim at specific ends.

One often hears the assertion that the content of YouTube and other similar websites is produced by the audience. Such a claim, however, dismisses crucial differences between two modes of action: producing and audiencing. The content may be created by lay people but in producing it they step out of the role of audience into that of producer. The content production as such – videos in the case of YouTube – may serve different ends even at the same time. For example, it may function as a vehicle for self-expression but likewise contribute to the maintenance of social relations. In the latter case, the producer engages in the mode of action that characterizes community. When intervening in issues with broader connections, she or he enters the mode of action that is characteristic of the public.

A more general contention in the article is that it makes sense to talk about audiences, producers, communities and publics, in the first place, as implicated in distinct modes of action. As regards examining activities afforded by and actualised in YouTube, all these modes are relevant. We demonstrate this by offering an ideal-typical reading, inspired by interpretive sociology, of the potential modes of action and their interrelations in YouTube. In the analysis, we concentrate on agency, but wish to stress the importance of the structural preconditions that frame and direct the forms web-mediated agency can take.