YouTube – New Media, New Public Space?

2/2008

Mikko Hautakangas

The potential of two-way communication has connected the internet with a hope for an open public space and, as a result, increased democracy. In recent years the rise of social media (so called “Web 2.0”) has facilitated the publication of user-created contents and thus raised discussion – in popular contexts as well as in media studies – about digital culture’s potential to challenge the corporate-governed media industry and to provide alternatives to broadcast media. However, while certain popular social media services make user participation easier, they also “tame” the digital culture (which originally has strong sub- and countercultural roots) by providing it certain controlled framework.

This article studies this alleged “new” public space and audience participation through the example of YouTube video service, and especially the videos awarded as the year’s best. How do the user-generated “new” media and “old” broadcast media negotiate their positions in relation to each other; what new does YouTube offer to its users, and how does it adapt to existing conventions of media culture? And what would be the suitable tools to study these changes and continuities from the point of view of media studies?

The emphasis on openness and collectivity that characterises digital culture, and its effects on social and cultural developments, has been theoretisized from different angles. On one hand, the negotiation between the “grassroots level” of individual users and the corporate level has been believed to challenge old power relations and to mold the ways of producing meaning and knowledge. On the other hand, the voluntary user production in digital culture has been seen as exploitation of free labor and as an indication of all individual activity being ever more immensely bound with capitalist production system. In any case, it seems clear that new tools are needed to think and theoretisize about participation in cultural production in the world where networks, relationships and rights are increasingly replacing materia and labor as sources of value and instruments of commerce.