The most infuriating consequence of broadband internet is that people now consider it acceptable to send each other links to YouTube videos of people talking about things, rather than links to articles in which these things are explained. Compared with prose, video is a terrible way of transmitting ideas. Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s “head of culture and trends”, claims in this book that YouTube is “the largest database of culture in the history of humanity”. This makes me both laugh and shiver: in terms of sheer gigabytes, it may be true, but you don’t have to be a fusty old bibliophile to suspect that, say, the Library of Congress might be vastly superior. If aliens wanted to understand humanity, Allocca says, he’d give them YouTube. God help us all.
But of course “culture” ain’t what it used to be (it never is). Allocca’s book is breezy and packed with stories about fun viral videos, plus a lot of tech cliches about the virtues of “sharing” and “interacting” and “participating” and so on. He is right, though, to point out that YouTube is the home for some truly new forms of expression. It’s not all films of dogs on skateboards; there are comedy video game commentators, unexpected musical cover-version artists, people who make “supercuts” of, say, the way a weather presenter announces a certain word, or “ASMRtists”, who whisper and stroke fabrics in a way that makes some people’s spines tingle.
That so many of these novel genres are entirely parasitical on material from existing media corporations will not trouble the new-media booster, who will trot out the ridiculous canard that all art has always been a “remix” of other art. That claim assumes there is no difference between artistic influence and literally reusing the same material, to the large financial benefit of companies – such as YouTube’s parent, Google (now Alphabet) – that have historically held a contemptuous attitude to intellectual property.
It is revealing that YouTube, like Facebook, was originally designed as a way to help nerds meet women. It was created in 2005 as a dating site, and co-founder Jawed Karim emailed his friends: “Can you help us spread the word? Since we just launched, there are no girls on it … YET.” Now there are, but not in the way he hoped: millionaire beauty vloggers, video gamers, musicians and all the rest, who have achieved internet celebrity through talent and the luck of the network. YouTube does have significant potential value as an educational tool specifically for practical skills, whether it be tying a tie, doing your makeup or learning yoga. And a widely distributed video of some outrageous event – as with those of unarmed black men being shot by police officers in the US – can generate real political action.
But not all political action promoted by widely shared video is desirable. YouTube, it says here, helps all of us share our “passions”, but some people have notoriously had a passion for murdering others and uploading the videos for the purposes of Islamist propaganda. Yet the dark side of YouTube is, oddly, hardly mentioned in this book at all. We hear nothing, for example, of the pressure exerted in recent years by authorities on YouTube (as well as on Facebook et al) to take down “extremist” and other nasty stuff, which results in the corporations hiring a new class of moderators placed in awful psychic jeopardy by having to watch such material all day. (YouTube is currently looking into “further consequences” for Logan Paul, the vlogger who filmed a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara forest.)
Last November, YouTube announced that it would remove videos by certain jihadist clerics even if they were not directly preaching hatred and violence. In adopting such editorial stances the tech giants make it clearly untenable for them to keep up the fiction that they are merely neutral “platforms”, rather than publishers.
But what really gives the lie to all the guff in this book about how YouTube et al have created a totally new world is the curious fact that all the modern tech giants are desperately aspiring to the status of … well, old-fashioned television companies. Far from having destroyed what Allocca calls the old assumption that “art and entertainment were thoughtfully considered collaborations from teams of professionals” (like, I don’t know, the latest Star Wars movie?), YouTube now commissions its own “content”, as is mentioned very briefly; Apple and Facebook, too, have launched their own TV studios to cash in on the binge-drama goldrush along with Amazon and Netflix. It seems that old-fashioned hierarchies of creative professionals – or what the tech overlords refer to dismissively as “gatekeepers” – do have their uses after all. Meanwhile, I’ll happily carry on spending much more time watching guitar videos and chess commentary on YouTube than I do watching UK broadcast television, but for heaven’s sake don’t send me any more TED talks.
• Videocracy: How YouTube Is Changing the World … With Double Rainbows, Singing Foxes, and Other Trends We Can’t Stop Watching is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £9.74 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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