Michael Wesch: Toward an Ethnography of YouTube

    by David Sasaki
    February 8, 2008

    I’m currently at DIY Video Summit, a well-organized gathering of academics, video-bloggers, and other web enthusiasts and critics. The first panel provided an overview of the state of academic research regarding online do-it-yourself video. A lot of the conversation centered around theoretical definitions of what constitutes an “amateur.” All of the panelists and many from the audience observed the blending of the professional and the amateur. Now commercial endeavours use ‘amateur’ as a hot marketing buzzword (think porn, American Idol, Laguna Beach) while amateurs try to represent themselves as professionals. I thought the most interesting speaker was Michael Wesch.

    weschweb2.jpgWesch is a cultural anthropologist and media ecologist exploring the impacts of new media on human interaction. If you don’t recognize his name, you’ll surely recognize a video he made last year, which has been viewed over 4.5 million times just on YouTube alone.


    Wesch, who used a Creative Commons-licensed song by Ivorian DJ Deus for the video’s music, wanted to make sure he understood the basic principals of what people refer to as Web 2.0. So he made the video, uploaded it to YouTube, and emailed the URL to some friends to ask for their feedback.

    The next day he saw that the video already had been viewed by over 240 people. He was amazed. In the field of anthropology, if your work is read by over 200 people, it’s considered a big success. So he took a screenshot of the page and told us, half jokingly, that he figured he would add it to his CV.

    But then something unexpected happened. The next day the video had been viewed a thousand times, then several thousand times. All of a sudden the video made it to the front page of Digg and Del.icio.us Popular. It got enough views to feature it on the front page of YouTube, which brought exponentially more viewers to the video.


    It became so popular and so influential, in fact, that a panel at the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival in New York focused specifically on its significance.

    Following his online celebrity stardom, Wesch became more interested in YouTube from an anthropological point of view. So, like any good professor, he created a class and asked his students to do the work.

    Part of the class involved participant observation. That is, Wesch’s students were to point their cameras on themselves and share their observations. In addition to their own personal vlogs, many of the students also produced some excellent documentaries about YouTube as a platform and phenomenon. Check out The History of YouTube, Authenticity on the Tube, and The Global Community. (You’ll notice that Wesch and his students’ perspectives on YouTube tend to be somewhat utopian. For a more critical view of YouTube – at least as an educational resource – check out Media Praxis by Alexandra Juhasz.)

    Wesch reminds the audience that YouTube already has collected more hours of video than all of the major television networks combined. Much of the content is the reposting of music videos and sports highlight reels, but there is also a gigantic community of individual vloggers who regularly post diary-like video entries about their lives and anything else that might occur to them.

    One of the things that I liked most about Wesch’s presentation is that he spoke like a normal human being without cloaking any of his findings in academic department jargon. Describing what it’s like to watch many of YouTube’s best vloggers, he said, “it’s like you can see straight through to someone’s core without feeling like you have to respond immedetiately. It almost gives you an artistic perspective about the individual. Even though it’s one of the most public spaces in the world, it’s also one of the most intimate.”

    This is also what his students found when they started posting their own diary-like entries. As their class project became more well-known and more public, they began questioning just who they were talking to. The webcam? An invisible audience? A certain person they knew (or assumed) would eventually watch the video? One of the students, speaking quietly into his webcam said, “because I’m not looking at anyone in the eye, maybe that’s what I’m able to say certain things I otherwise wouldn’t.”

    Tagged: Anthropology video video247 youtube

    Comments are closed.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »

    Follow us on Social Media