Studying, Teaching and Publishing on YouTube: An Interview With Alexandra Juhasz

Alexandra Juhasz, professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College

Alexandra Juhasz, professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College

The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and worked on a range of projects leading up to CurateCamp Digital Culture in July. This is part of a series of interviews Julia conducted to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.

The numbers around user-generated video are staggering. YouTube, one of the largest user-generated video platforms, has more than 100 hours of video content uploaded to it every minute. What does this content mean for us and our society? What of it should we aspire to ensure long-term access to?

As part of the NDSA Insights interview series, I’m delighted to interview Alexandra Juhasz, professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College. Dr. Juhasz has written multiple articles on digital media and produced the feature films “The Owls” and “The Watermelon Woman.” Her innovative “video-book” “Learning from YouTube” was published by MIT Press, but partly enabled through YouTube itself, and is available for free here. In this regard, her work is relevant to those working in digital preservation both in better understanding the significance of user-generated video platforms like YouTube and in understanding new hybrid forms of digital scholarly publishing.

Julia: In the intro to your online video-book “Learning From YouTube” you say “YouTube is the Problem, and YouTube is the solution.” Can you expand on that a bit for us?

Alex: I mean “problem” in two ways. The first is more neutral: YouTube is my project’s problematic, its subject or concern. But I also mean it more critically as well: YouTube’s problems are multiple–as are its advantages–but our culture has focused much more uncritically on how it chooses to sell itself: as a democratic space for user-made production and interaction. The “video-book” understands this as a problem because it’s not exactly true. I discuss how YouTube isn’t democratic in the least; how censorship dominates its logic (as does distraction, the popular and capital).

YouTube is also a problem in relation to the name and goals of the course that the publication was built around (my undergraduate Media Studies course also called “Learning from YouTube” held about, and also on, the site over three semesters, starting in 2007). As far as pedagogy in the digital age is concerned, the course suggests there’s a problem if we do all or most or even a great deal of our learning on corporate-owned platforms that we have been given for free, and this for many reasons that my students and I elaborate, but only one of which I will mention here as it will be most near and dear to your readers’ hearts: it needs a good archivist and a reasonable archiving system if it’s to be of any real use for learners, teachers or scholars. Oh, and also some system to evaluate content.

YouTube is the solution because I hunkered down there, with my students, and used the site to both answer the problem, and name the problems I have enumerated briefly above.

Julia: What can you tell us about how you approached the challenges of teaching a course about YouTube? What methods of analysis did you apply to its content? How did you select which materials to examine given the vast scope and diversity of YouTube’s content?

Alex: I have taught the course three times (2007, 2008, 2010). In each case the course was taught on and about YouTube. This is to say, we recorded class sessions (the first year only), so the course could be seen on YouTube; all the class assignments needed to take the form of YouTube “writing” and needed to be posted on YouTube (as videos or comments); and the first time I taught it, the students could only do their research on YouTube (thereby quickly learning the huge limits of its vast holdings). You can read more about my lessons learned teaching the course here and here.

The structure of the course mirrors many of the false promises of YouTube (and web 2.0 more generally), thereby allowing students other ways to see its “problems.” It was anarchic, user-led (students chose what we would study, although of course I graded them: there’s always a force of control underlying these “free” systems), public, and sort of silly (but not really).

As the course developed in its later incarnations, I developed several kinds of assignments (or methods of analysis as you put it), including traditional research looking at the results of published scholars, ethnographic research engaging with YouTubers, close-textual analysis (of videos and YouTube’s architecture), and what I call YouTours, where students link together a set of YouTube videos to make an argument inside of and about and with its holdings. I also have them author their own “Texteo” as their final (the building blocks, or pages, of my video-book; texteo=the dynamic linking of text and video), where they make a concise argument about some facet of YouTube in their own words and the words of videos they make or find (of course, this assignment allows them to actually author a “page” of my “book,” thereby putting into practice web 2.0’s promise of the decline of expertise and the rise of crowd-sourced knowledge production).

Students choose the videos and themes we study on YouTube. I like this structure (giving them this “control”) because they both enjoy and know things I would never look at, and they give me a much more accurate reading of mainstream YouTube than I would ever find on my own. My own use of the site tends to take me into what I call NicheTube (the second, parallel structure of YouTube, underlying the first where a few videos are seen by many many people, and these are wholly predictable in their points of view and concerns. On YouTube it’s easy to find popular videos. On NicheTube content is rarely seen, hard to find and easy to lose; everything might be there, but very few people will ever see it.

Now that YouTube Studies has developed, I also assign several of the book-length studies written about it from a variety of disciplines (I list these below). When I first taught the class in 2007, my students and I were generating the primary research and texts of YouTube Studies: producing work that was analytical and critical about the site, in its vernaculars, and on its pages.

Julia: What were some of the challenges of publishing an academic work in digital form? A large part of the work depends on linking to YouTube videos that you did not create and/or are no longer available. What implications are there for long-term access to your work?

Alex: I discuss this in greater length in the video-book because another one of its self-reflexive structures, mirroring those of YouTube, is self-reflexivity: an interest in its own processes, forms, structures and histories.

While MIT Press was extremely interested and supportive, they had never “published” anything like this before. The problems were many, and varied, and we worked through them together. I’ve detailed answers to your question in greater details within the video-book, but here’s one of the lists of differences I generated:

  • Delivery of the Work
  • Author’s Warranty
  • Credit
  • Previous Publication
  • Size of the Work
  • Royalties
  • Materials Created by Other Persons
  • Upkeep
  • Editing
  • Author’s Alterations
  • Promotion
  • Index

Many of these differences are legal and respond directly to the original terms in the contract they gave me that made no sense at all with a born-digital, digital-only object, and in particular about writing a book composed of many things I did not “own,” about “selling” a book for free, making a book that was already-made, or moving a book that never needed to be shipped.

One solution is that the video-book points to videos, but they remained “owned” by YouTube (I backed up some of the most important and put them on Critical Commons knowing that they might go away). But, in the long run, I do not mind that many of the videos fade away, or that the book itself will probably become quickly unreadable (because the systems is written on will become obsolete). It is another myth of the Internet that everything there is lasting, permanent, forever. In fact, by definition, much of what is housed or written there is unstable, transitory, difficult to find, or difficult to access as platforms, software and hardware change.

In “On Publishing My YouTube “Book” Online (September 24, 2009)” I mention these changes as well:

  1. Audience. When you go online your readers (can) include nonacademics.
  2. Commitment. Harder to command amid the distractions.
  3.  Design. Matters more; and it has meaning.
  4.  Finitude. The page(s) need never close.
  5.  Interactivity. Should your readers, who may or may not be experts, author too?
  6.  Linearity. Goes out the window, unless you force it.
  7.  Multimodality. Much can be expressed outside the confines of the word.
  8.  Network. How things link is within or outside the author’s control.
  9.  Single author. Why hold out the rest of the Internet?
  10.  Temporality. People read faster online. Watching video can be slow. A book is long.

Now, when I discuss the project with other academics, I suggest there are many reasons to write and publish digitally: access, speed, multi-modality, etc. (see here), but if you want your work to be seen in the future, better to publish a book!

Julia: At this point you have been studying video production since the mid 90s. I would be curious to hear a bit about how your approach and perspective have developed over time.

Alex: My research (and production) interests have stayed consistent: how might everyday people’s access to media production and distribution contribute to people’s and movement’s empowerment? How can regular citizens have a voice within media and therefore culture more broadly, so that our interests, concerns and criticisms become part of this powerful force?

Every time I “study” the video of political people (AIDS activists, feminists, YouTubers), I make video myself. I theorize from my practice, and I call this “Media Praxis” (see more about that here). But what has changed during the years I’ve been doing this and thinking about it is that more and more people really do have access to both media production and distribution since when I first began my studies (and waxed enthusiastically about how camcorders were going to foster a revolution). Oddly, this access can be said to have produced many revolutions (for instance the use of people-made media in the Arab Spring) and to have quieted just as many (we are more deeply entrenched in both capitalism’s pull and self-obsessions then at any time in human history, it seems to me!). I think a lot about that in the YouTube video-book and in projects since (like this special issue on feminist queer digital media praxis that I just edited for the online journal Ada).

Julia: You end up being rather critical of how popularity works on YouTube. You argue that “YouTube is not democratic. Its architecture supports the popular. Critical and original expression is easily lost to or censored by its busy users, who not only make YouTube’s content, but sift and rate it, all the while generating its business.” You also point to the existence of what you call “NicheTube,” the vast sea of little-seen YouTube videos that are hard to find given YouTube’s architecture of ranking and user-generated tags.” Could you tell us a bit more about your take on the role of filtering and sorting in it’s system?

Alex: YouTube is corporate owned, just as is Facebook, and Google, and the many other systems we use to find, speak, navigate and define our worlds, words, friends, interests and lives. Filtering occurs in all these places in ways that benefit their bottom lines (I suggest in “Learning From YouTube” that a distracted logic of attractions keeps our eyeballs on the screen, which is connected to their ad-based business plan). In the process, we get more access to more and more immediate information, people, places and ideas than humans ever have, but it’s filtered through the imperatives of capitalism rather than say those of a University Library (that has its own systems to be sure, of great interest to think through, and imbued by power like anything else, but not the power of making a few people a lot of money).

The fact that YouTube’s “archive” is unorganized, user-tagged, chaotic and uncurated is their filtering system.

Julia: If librarians, archivists and curators wanted to learn more about approaches like yours to understanding the significance and role of online video what examples of other scholars’ work would you suggest? It would be great if you could mention a few other scholars’ work and explain what you think is particularly interesting about their approaches.

Alex: I assign these books in “Learning from YouTube”: Patrick Vonderau, “The YouTube Reader”; Burgess and Green, “YouTube” and Michael Strangelove, “Watching YouTube.” I also really like the work of Michael Wesch and Patricia Lange who are anthropologists whose work focuses on the site and its users.

Outside of YouTube itself, many of us are calling this kind of work “platform studies,” where we look critically and carefully at the underlying structures of the underlying structures of Internet culture. Some great people working here are Caitlin Benson-Allott, danah boyd, Wendy Chun, Laine Nooney, Tara McPherson, Siva Vaidhyanathan and Michelle White.

I also think that as a piece of academic writing, Learning from YouTube (which I understand to be a plea for the longform written in tweets, or a plea for the classroom written online) is in conversation with scholarly work that is thinking about the changing nature of academic writing and publishing (and all writing and publishing, really). Here I like the work of Kathleen Fitzpatrick or Elizabeth Losh, as just two examples.

Julia: I would also be interested in what ways of thinking about the web you see this as being compatible or incompatible with other approaches to theorizing the web. How is your approach to studying video production online similar or different from other approaches in new media studies, internet research, anthropology, sociology or the digital humanities?

Alex: “Learning from YouTube” is new media studies, critical Internet studies, and DH, for sure. As you say above, my whole career has looked at video; since video moved online, I did too. I think of myself as an artist and a humanist (and an activist) and do not think of myself as using social science methods although I do learn a great deal from research done with in these disciplines.

After “Learning from YouTube” I have done two further web-based projects: a website that tries to think about and produce alternatives to corporate-made and owned Internet experiences (rather than just critique this situation),; and a collaborative criticism of the MOOC (Massive Online Open course), what we call a DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course):

In all three cases I think that “theorizing the web” is about making and using the web we want and not the version that corporations have given to us for free. I do this using the structures, histories, theories, norms and practices of feminism, but any ethical system will do!

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