An anthropological introduction to YouTube

By Shamus Posted Thursday Sep 4, 2008

Filed under: Movies 39 comments

I’ve been reposting YouTube in lieu of substantive writing for a while now, and I’m starting to wonder how long you’re going to let me get away with it.

Today’s lack of meaningful posts is entirely the fault Rustybadger, who left a comment yesterday with a link to the following:

It’s almost an hour long, but well worth the time. I found it to be deeply compelling. It’s a presentation by anthropologist Mike Wesch before the Library of Congress. (Mike Wesch is also the guy behind the now-famous Web 2.0 video, which is less about technology and more about how people use it.) It’s a discussion on both the culture of YouTube and YouTube’s effect on the culture.

About every couple of minutes I wanted to pause the thing and hammer out a post on what he was talking about, but I’ve already got over a dozen half-baked posts in the queue, on what is becoming an increasingly unfocused and schizophrenic site. If I branch out into amateur anthropology there will be no saving the place.

Besides, the last thing the world needs is more amateur anthropologists, recklessly anthropologizing all over the place without the proper education and training. I don’t know what the League of Anthropology does with renegades, but I’ll bet it isn’t pretty.

I will say that by the end of the video I had a strong urge to go make one of those, “Hi YouTube” videos, which is just strange. Recluse introvert that I am, I actually depend on text-based interaction to mitigate the psychological damage of interpersonal communications. Going all verbal and unedited is like playing with toxic waste without a hazmat suit: It makes me nervous when I’m doing it and I feel sick afterward. Hair loss may be involved. It’s not good for me.

The sensation of wanting to dive into YouTube is the interpersonal equivalent of vertigo. I’ve heard some people describe it as the sensation of being overcome by the perception of vertical distance. You see a huge drop, and have the desire to jump into it to close the distance. That’s not the normal definition used, but it’s an interesting idea. When viewing Wesch’s movie, I was suddenly overcome with the sensation of just how many people there are out there. Of course, we always know this, but like stepping into the Total Perspective Vortex, actually perceiving the scale of things can be very disorienting. To get a sense of all these people out there made me want to jump in and try to connect with them, simply because there are so many.

My favorite part? The 92 year old guy, singing a song about YouTube. He was born in 1916. He was 13 at the start of the great depression. He was 25 when the US entered WWII. He was 27 when the television network ABC was formed. The FCC approved color television the year he turned 37 – the age I am now. He started before the time of ubiquitous household electricity, and ended on the internet. Amazing.

(Dammit. I just did it again. I sat down, deciding to quickly repost a video so I could get back to my projects and get caught up. Here I am an hour and a half and over 500 words later. This internet thing is going to kill me.)

Anyway, hope you enjoy the video.


From The Archives:

39 thoughts on “An anthropological introduction to YouTube

  1. hotsauce says:

    Posts like these make me feel… something about the fact that I can’t view Youtube at work.

  2. Dacendaran says:

    cant watch the video now but looks interesting.

    Internet culture has always offended me, mostly because it seems to be made up of 12 year old kids, the kind you find on Xbox live.

    Maybe i just frequent the wrong forums.

  3. Derek K says:

    @Dacendaran: You do.

    The only times I feel that way are reading the official forums for an MMO. Other than that, it’s a fairly rare experience for me.

  4. Mari says:

    That old man has seen some amazing things. Some of them are way more amazing than YouTube. When he was born, people DIED of measles, polio, and chicken pox. Now most people don’t even GET those things, much less die from them. When he was born, most countries had laws that made it virtually impossible for medical schools to legally procure cadavers for students to learn in so our understanding of human anatomy was much more limited. That man has seen the first heart transplant go on to commonplace replacement of failing organs. In test labs, they’re even making some organs out of plastic and an INKJET PRINTER (link).

    That old guy began life in an era where a huge number of people still relied on horses to get them where they needed to go. He lived long enough to see going to THE MOON become so “commonplace” that we don’t bother to go back anymore. Crossing vast oceans in jet airplanes is so commonplace now that we don’t even consider the time, but when he was a boy most people spent weeks on ships to move from one continent to another. Many American households consider themselves “impoverished” if they have fewer than one car per household member, but this guy remembers when one carriage or wagon per household was the norm.

    He saw the standard outhouse become an indoor bathroom that might even have HOT water piped in (early ones didn’t, you know) to the point we’re at now where most people have multiple indoor bathroom facilities and many people have indoor bathing facilities to rival the public bathhouses of Rome.

    He’s seen women go from non-voting status to a female presidential primary candidate. He’s seen women move from homemakers to working outside the home for substantially lower wages to something approaching income equality with some women out-earning their spouses. He was born in a time when it was considered possibly physically UNHEALTHY for women to excel in academia to women doctors, lawyers, and juris doctorates.

    I really think YouTube is the least of the amazement we should consider when we think of the span of that man’s life.

  5. Zukhramm says:

    I want to make something to post on Youtube now. Actually, I will.

    But just to say something more on topic, the video was interesting.

  6. Deoxy says:

    Internet culture has always offended me, mostly because it seems to be made up of 12 year old kids, the kind you find on Xbox live.

    The only times I feel that way are reading the official forums for an MMO.

    That, and anything to do with politics.

  7. Nazgul says:

    Ok, you can stop getting away with it now… ;)

  8. The Lone Duck says:

    To me, websites are defined by two features, content and comments. Reading comments on YouTube… Is a bold reminder that stupidity is ubiquitous throughout history, regardless of public education.

  9. Kevin says:

    (Waves fist in the air at another video post in lieu of more substantive writing.)

    Coming face to face with the intricacies and breadth of humanity can be a little awe-inspiring. YouTube does promote a lot of gooberism, but it’s also a wonderful vehicle for connection and learning.

    As soon as The Man figures that out you can say goodbye to it though.

  10. Shamus says:

    The Man.

    Sheesh. That guy really bugs me.

  11. Shamus says:

    Gah. And what better way to honor the guy than to misspell his name five times.

    “Wesh” corrected to “Wesch”.

  12. MintSkittle says:

    Okay Shamus, you’ve fooled around long enough. Less Youtube, more games.

  13. Kevin says:

    I saw this video the other day on (a VERY good site for a variety of reasons, and not affiliated with me).

    The culture that we live in revolves around a lot of things that have no prior comparison points. The self-broadcasting nature of YouTube and the self-publishing nature of the web prove that people want to retain that small-town association, only at a global level. There’s a desire to be connected which is balanced by the desire to be “safe” (physically or emotionally). People want to be known but not hurt.

    These common feelings combined with the technology to unite the two extremes make services like YouTube such powerful forces in our society.

    At least that’s my humble opinion.


  14. ngthagg says:

    I will say that by the end of the video I had a strong urge to go make one of those, “Hi YouTube” videos

    Ditto. Not that surprising, once I think about it. The whole point of this is that there aren’t any limitations on who can post a video, so why not me?

  15. Mari says:

    Kevin, I draw your attention to the Gutenberg printing press. To claim that the internet and/or YouTube is a unique phenomenon with no prior historical precedent is very naive.

  16. Shamus says:

    Mari: I seriously doubt Kevin is ignorant of the printing press. There’s no need to make this personal.

  17. Mari says:

    I wasn’t intending to bash or make it personal. Sorry. I was just responding to his comment “The culture that we live in revolves around a lot of things that have no prior comparison points.” Sorry again if it came out harsh or rude.

  18. Yonder says:

    Mari, I would say that the ability to make a video, and distribute it to 10,000 people globally five minutes later is very comparable to many of the other breakthroughs made during that man’s life.

  19. Kurayamino says:

    wow… impressive video. Sometimes humanity kicks ass!

  20. Dev Null says:

    Actually, I’m glad you took this long YouTubeStalling; I hadn’t seen that before, and its really interesting.

    Now get back to work *whipcrack*.

  21. Heph says:

    Am I truly the only person on the planet who does spend al ot of time on the net but doesn’t have the time – or the patience – to regularly listen to 3/4 hour long podcasts or hourlong YouGoogle videos? Man.

  22. Kadea says:

    Wow…I now want to move back to the mid-west and take his class(es?) and become an anthropologist…

  23. Eltanin says:

    It’s really a fascinating video. I hadn’t seen his web 2.0 video before either and it was quite amazing as well. I haven’t made it through the whole Library of Congress video but it has been truly intriguing so far. Just awesome. Thanks for the link Shamus.

    I agree that the printing press was a comparable breakthrough in the way that people were connected. But we have been making breakthroughs of a similar magnitude (in the way people are connected) every six months. Really much of this subject boils down to the ever accelerating pace of technology and new discoveries and our ability/inability to react to them.

    Is it any wonder that larger groups (governments and corporations) are having a hard time keeping up? The inertia in a large group leads them to act stupidly. An example? DRM.

  24. Antwon says:

    @Heph – It’s not just you. I’m in the same boat myself: I like podcasts and vidcasts well enough, but anything over half-an-hour or so often falls into the “man, that’s an awfully long while; there are other things I’d probably prefer to do with that slug of time” bucket for me.

  25. Chris Arndt says:

    1) Making something under ten minutes and under 100 Megabytes is very difficult for me, especially to make it fit both of those requirements and not AOL streaming skippy.

    2) Attracting a worthwhile audience to the worthwhile content is also a problem.

    3) I don’t have the money for the editing equipment I want.

    4) I don’t have the time to edit it all right.

    Anyone who says it’s easy and that anyone can do it isn’t quite connected to all the Common Man problems.

  26. Shamus says:

    I would LOVE to know what he uses to edit video. I’m working on a video project myself, and using Windows Movie Maker feels like trying to skin a bear with a butterknife.

    A live bear.

    A live, pissed-off bear.

  27. ravells says:

    Thank you so much for posting this Sean, brilliant viewing!

  28. ravells says:

    Sean? I meant Shamus!

  29. DocTwisted says:

    Wow. That was a compelling video. I wish I had the equipment to make and upload my own “Free Hugs” video… as unfriendly as people can be in some of the public places where I currently live, it would be interesting to see what kind of video I ended up with.

  30. Ysabel says:


    Am I the only one who cried when he got to the montage of messages written on hands?

  31. Luke Maciak says:

    Great video – inspiring I’d say! I too felt the sudden urge to make a vlog (and btw, we need a new word for vlogs because vlog sounds like someone throwing up) but I quickly shook it off and came to my senses.

    I’d totally take this guy’s class under the condition that he would not make me act-out the Numa dance. :P

  32. anonymouse says:

    Congratulations on an extremely well-written post, Shamus. If that’s stalling, I can only say that I don’t mind. “Anthropologizing” immediately made my list of favourite words.

    Anyhoo, I’ll watch the video later. At least I think I will. But it is awfully long…

  33. Slippery Jim says:

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched that while hung-over and emotional – great video!

  34. Avaz says:

    To use the current popular lexicon, that video is made of uber win. It also made me want to do a “Hi YouTube” video.

    @Ysabel – 30 – Though I didn’t cry at that part, it was extremely moving.

    The human condition is a marvelous phenomenon that can’t be summed up in just under an hour.

    By the way, I’m kind of surprised so far no one had seen the length of the video and just went (the video equivalent of) “tl:dr” to it. :)

  35. Tola says:

    People-AT THE MOMENT-respect videos enough that no-one will do that.

    As it becomes more commonplace, replacing ‘message boards’ and the like(Part of me is sure this will happen) you can expect “Too long for me to watch” or “Bookmarked for later”.

    Add to this the fact that people are predicting increases in work from home and the fact that there’s little need to leave the house even now and the future looks…well, it’s either be utopia or dystopia, depending on how your imagination runs. Either there’ll be much more open space(Reclaimed ‘unnecessary’ buildings, since everyone’s working at home) or everywhere will be, effectively, a slum(The same buildings just….are left to rot)

  36. Just Mike says:

    Thanks for the video, Shamus!
    No hurries do I send you because I think you are doing a fine job sharing your view of the web/life/existence/etc. with us ;-)

    If it wasn’t for you, I would have missed out those cool star wars lightsaber battles (ryan vs. dorkman?) and my boys LOVED them ;-) especially my 5 year old ;-)

    Not to mention all of the other memes and such that I somehow avoid until they are all old and decrepit … hehehe.

  37. Rustybadger says:

    I’m glad so many people enjoyed the video. I am being hassled by my wife to let the masses know that SHE referred it to me. It’s important that she out-geeks me, you know.

  38. i dont like to leave my name in places like this says:

    I simply hate the idea of speaking to my monitor, or myself, but this video also made me do a “hi youtube” video.

    what the butt.

  39. Vao Ki says:

    Finally got around to sitting still long enough to watch this one. All I can say is thanks for sharing. That was both very interesting and insightful.

    This is why I continued reading this site after DMoTRs was finished. Not only do you have interesting commentary on games I’ve played/heard of/had no clue existed, but also there are so many interesting things you dig up and share with the rest of us.

    I have to say I also had an exceedingly disturbing urge to create a video on YouTube as the video went on, and probably will one day. Today is not that day. Tomorrow isn’t looking all that good either…

    When I do I’ll let you know.

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