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Books Review: Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People, by Michael Strangelove

Another magical YouTube moment

In 2006, the cover of an issue of Time magazine, fashioned after a YouTube video, declared "You" to be the person of the year. In so doing, Time was recognizing the metamorphosis of the mass audience in the Internet age: from passive watchers, to interactive players, to active producers of compelling amateur videos where they are the movie stars.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of YouTube, the video-sharing website on which users can upload, share and view videos, homemade or otherwise. Michael Strangelove, adjunct professor in the department of communication at the University of Ottawa, has written a scholarly yet provocative book on the phenomenon, which very much delivers on its promise to provide an investigation into the world of ordinary people and their extraordinary recorded lives.





Indeed, watching the ordinary come alive is very much part of the YouTube experience. These videos are adolescent (there is a trend among teenagers to post videos of themselves vomiting), sentimental (weddings are very popular) and domestic (cats generate millions of views). Other videos are consciousness-raising (the chapter Women of the 'Tube' shows the subcultures of discussion and self-expression that YouTube inspires in every social minority) and even Freudian if you consider, as Strangelove does with great adeptness, the reverberations of the Self that occur in popular video diaries, also known as video blogging or vlogs.

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Put simply: When people write in traditional journals, the audience is not an issue, whereas with vlogs, the audience is co-present with the video artist and often a stimulant or deterrent for the confession and outpouring that can take place. "It is surprisingly not hard to put details about yourself out to complete strangers," one vlogger says.

Strangelove seems playful. Turns out, he was not born with the name Strangelove. His website opens with a brief commentary on how the Internet is like a good cigar. But he takes the Internet very seriously and his analysis of it is even-handed, extensively researched and perspicacious. His first book, Empire of Mind; Digital Piracy and the Anti-Capitalist Movement, a Governor-General's Award non-fiction finalist in 2006, made the case that the Internet leads to a new meaning: production that can subvert the dominant form of meaning contained within capitalism's symbolic empire.

As this argument suggests, his is a Marxist communications theory perspective. He views the 2006 purchase of YouTube by Google Inc. as a big step backward for any hope of the website challenging the reign of commercial media. But several factors intimate that the website may stay relatively "anarchic": its participatory nature, the relatively weak regulatory controls around it and the fact that a surprising 79 per cent of its videos contain user-generated content.

Is YouTube powerful? One chapter, The Post-Television Audience, discusses a key activity on YouTube: appropriation. Whereas the television audience can only interpret, the YouTube audience can take content and change it. A well-known example of this occurred in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, during which some individuals took a clip from the 2004 German movie Downfall and inserted English-language subtitles into a scene where Hitler explodes in the face of defeat. The lines viciously parodied Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others.

YouTube has empowered consumers. Witness the 2009 video United Breaks Guitars that Canadian guitarist David Carroll uploaded when United Airlines broke his guitar and refused to deal with the issue. Strangelove reports that the bad public relations generated by the video caused the company's stock price to dip by 10 per cent. (Eventually the airline compensated the musician.)

Worth noting, which Strangelove touches on, is the power of the image. Marshall McLuhan wrote about how the written word calls on our linear logic and impresses us intellectually, whereas pictures tend to grab us emotionally. To wit: It is one thing to read an Internet blogger's description of his vomiting experience; it is another to see his video of it. Musician Carroll's video of fake United baggage handlers throwing guitars across the tarmac is nothing short of priceless.

Given that this is the first Canadian book to explore YouTube, I was disappointed in not detecting a Canadian take. What is distinct about YouTube.ca, if anything? The global, boundary-less nature of the Internet may partly account for this seeming fault.

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The research in Watching YouTube - namely the interpretations of the website's content and its statistics (daily uploaded videos total about 350,000) - make it an overdue and lively read for the knowledgeable trend-watcher. But the book's strength is its high level of scholarly analysis, which includes responses to a range of academic commentary. As such, it would be a huge asset to the library of a communications, anthropology or sociology academic.

Jenefer Curtis is an Ottawa writer with a deep interest in how technology affects our psyches and our lives.

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