Television 2.0: YouTube and the Emergence of Homecasting
José van Dijck
University of Amsterdam
The end of 2006 was marked by two events both flagging the remarkable rise of a novel form of media production and consumption. In October, Google acquired the popular video-sharing website YouTube—a site that had yet to celebrate its first anniversary and welcome its first profit—for the preposterous amount of 1.65 billion dollar. The buy-out was part of a trend: eight months earlier, Murdoch Inc. purchased videosite MySpace for an equally impressive sum. Obviously, Google’s acquirement was not about bringing innovative technology to the house, as its own GoogleVideo was already running on superior software; it was about bringing in communities of users. Sites such as YouTube, GoogleVideo, MySpace and DailyMotion boast millions of daily users willing to download and upload self-made videos, short TV-clips, and movie trailers. In December 2006, Time Magazine, nominated “You” as its person-of-the-year—an unknown web-soldier symbolizing the aggregate production prowess of millions of web users around the world. The “YouWeb”, also known as “Web 2.0” (O’Reilly 2005), refers to second the generation of web-based technologies that foreground user-controlled platforms, inviting productive engagement and enticing bloggers, music uploaders, reviewers, writers of entries, private traders, video sharers, and others to interact with and contribute content to the virtual universe.
In the light of these events, what significance do video-sharing sites such as YouTube actually represent? Are they merely the latest silicon bubble or are they indicative of an emerging cultural phenomenon that warrants a serious reconsideration of the institutional practice of broadcasting and viewers? This essay argues in favour of the latter option. The “you” in YouTube signifies a new type of collaborative co-producer of media content whom we have come to refer to as a “user” of audiovisual content. Compared to text and audio, video was initially lagging behind in relation to other web-sharing sites. Whereas Amazon, Wikipedia, KaZaa, and millions of blogger-sites have boosted the exchange of sound and text via the Internet for years now, the maturation of video-diarists and videoclip producers as full-fledged members of the YouWeb took considerably longer. But once this relative newcomer to the Internet nestled itself in easy-to-use software applications, its popularity exploded. Rather than simply offering a new technological environment for video-sharing, YouTube and similar sites are well underway to engender a new cultural practice which prompts media theorists to reflect on user agency as distinct from conventional agencies of viewers, audiences, or consumers.
The “tube” in YouTube consciously positions the user in dialogue with the “device formerly known as television”: a broadcasting system historically cemented in centralized production, simultaneous programming, and mass reception (Uricchio, 2004). Characteristics of broadcasting as an institutional system were never written in stone, but they have been in flux ever since television’s inception. Technological, social, and cultural changes have forced adjustments upon television’s institutional structure as well as upon its practices and programmed content. The medium’s shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting via a variety of alternate carriers (cable, satellite, Internet) has resulted in a substantial alteration of interfaces between viewers and programs (TiVo, WebTV, video-on-demand systems). More recently, the emergence of websites such as YouTube adds yet another dimension to personalized program packages selected by viewers: we can now produce our own audiovisual production and distribute it to a potentially worldwide audience. This new institutional practice I will refer to as “homecasting”. The creation and distribution of user-generated content via homecasting sites such as YouTube and GoogleVideo both expands and alters our rapport with the medium of television.
The growth of self-produced audiovisual content in a contemporary culture that is still dominated by broadcasting and narrowcasting, prompts media scholars to assess trends across new production platforms, says sociologist David Croteau (2006: 343). In this article, I first propose to theoretically explore the concept of “user” in the context of video-sharing sites. Users are active creators and adaptive agents in addition to still being viewers and consumers of televised content. Accepting users’ agency as part of an indivisible spectrum of production and consumption appears to be problematic in a conventional broadcast model where recipients are “programmed” as receivers. Second, I intend to introduce and specify the new concept of “homecasting” as a step towards designing a meaningful framework for understanding the current mediascape and the technological, social, and cultural forces shaping it. Rather than rendering conventional television programming obsolete, the emerging institutional practice of homecasting is dependent upon the customary practices of broadcasting and narrowcasting. If the World Wide Web has provided new channels for audiovisual self-expression, these channels are equally affected by legal and techno-economical conditions. Yet how do new sites for homecasting help “institutionalize” this new cultural phenomenon? And what are the different proprietary and legal (and thus cultural) strategies involved in shaping these practices? For media scholars, the challenge is to make sense of an up-and-coming institutional practice in a field of forces still dominated by established media institutions, systems, and forms.
Viewers, Consumers, and Users
In the early years of television, up until the 1970s, academic studies of audiovisual content for the most part addressed the viewer as an agent of meaning construction. Interpretive frameworks probing the relationship between media products and spectators accentuated signification and subjectivity. Television programs were considered cultural objects the nature of which was closest to film narratives, and whose understanding required the same set of analytical tools as used in screen theory. Film spectatorship, like television spectatorship, was evaluated primarily in terms of narrative strategies, representation, identification, subject position, and meaning attribution (Mores, 1990). Note that none of these early theorists framed the “reading” of television texts as a one-way conversation with screened content; television viewing was always couched in terms of active encoding and decoding of meaning (Hall, 1980). Scholars from the humanities either emphasized the intrinsic engagement of the viewer with the medium (McLuhan, 1964), they stressed the “multi-accentuality of the sign” (Volosinov, 1973) or noted the role of subject positions in the text’s ideological effect (Brunsdon and Morley, 1978). Significantly, television spectatorship was phrased primarily in terms of its historical precursors film, and, albeit to a lesser extent, literature. Audiovisual content was read as “text”, even if script, images and audio were all integrated in the act of reading or deciphering.
It was not until the 1980s that television viewers began to be theorized and understood more expressly in the context of institutional production and consumer routines. Raymond Williams (1974) was one of the first to acknowledge the importance of television’s cultural form in addition to its technological and institutional specifications. The notion of spectatorship which had, up to then, been rooted in a primarily textual basis gave way to a notion of reception that prioritized the material practice of watching television in everyday life; household routines and viewing behaviour caught the interest of cultural theorists and sociologists. Morley (1986) introduced an “ethnography of reading” to scrutinize viewers’ behaviour and feminist academics such as Radway (1987) and Modleski (1984) situated women’s viewing and reading habits in domestic and familial contexts, relating reception to the socially relevant categories of gender, class, and ethnicity. Recognition of the spectator’s engagement with television as part of the fabric of everyday life affected researchers’ understanding of viewers; the object of study changed from a relatively static concept of “mass audience” to a more dynamic concept covering the range of activities people perform with and around TV (Radway, 1988).
Not coincidentally, this shift in the conceptualization of spectatorship from “viewer” to “consumer” concurred with technological changes that helped increase viewers’ control over unilateral programming.1 The invention and wide implementation of VCRs, remote control devices, and cable television not only expanded the range of options for viewers, but also empowered them to interrupt the flow of set programming by means of zapping and timeshifting (Ang, 1991). In the wake of this “activist turn”, television theorists expanded their earlier focus on viewing strategies to include issues of taste and pleasure in addition to meaning. Inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) investigations of the social patterning of taste were related to the distribution of political and cultural power. Researchers like Morley (1986) and Hobson (1982) combined ethnographic studies with textual analysis; armed with more profuse methodologies, they set out to investigate television reception as a material practice in which varied signification and appreciation of television content is intricately intertwined with stratified predispositions of recipients. In other words, television consumers’ behaviour included active engagement with the entire spectrum of the tube’s technological apparatus, its social use, and its cultural forms—a spectrum adequately accounted for by media theorists shifting their attention to both viewers and consumers (Costera Meijer, 200?).
Since the onset of the new millennium, the consumer has gradually entered a new domain of audiovisual production and distribution—a domain previously inaccessible to amateurs, due to prohibitive costs of equipment and dissemination via analogue television channels. The emergence of cheap, high-quality digital equipment and computer editing software, combined with easy internet access, increasing bandwidth, and user-friendly video sites have facilitated the massive generation of amateur-produced content.2 Heretofore adequate concepts such as consumer and “prosumer”, despite their emphasis on active engagement with media, seem to be lacking when trying to apply them to the recent proliferation of postings on video-sharing websites.3 In recent years, “audience participation” in television productions has increased substantially, even before the creation of YouTube. Broadcasters have tapped a seemingly infinite reservoir of “ordinary” consumers who have become indispensable in the production of reality television, quiz shows, dating programs, talk shows, and makeover programs (Teurlings, 2005). A still increasing number of viewers send in their videos or photographs to news or entertainment programs, sometimes providing broadcasting companies with crucial visual evidence or unique audiovisual material. And yet, the more viewers are actively staged as contributors of television, the more interest broadcasters have in drawing tight boundaries around those who make programs and those who consume them. “Prosumers” and consumers, even if denoting the active contributors to television programs, are still caught in the binary economic vocabulary of the television industry, and they are thus denied a constitutive, creative agency.
In recent years, the term “user” has become widely accepted as the new denomination for active contributors to the YouWeb in general, and for video sharers via Internet platforms in particular. Although the term equally applies to users of text-based or audio-based content-sharing platforms, it is important to specify the cultural meaning of this concept in relation to audiovisual content. The simple definition of users is: those who contribute self-generated content to video-sharing websites, instead of those who merely consume or view pre-packaged content via television or PC. A more nuanced description, however, reveals an intricate intertwining of viewing and consuming behaviour with activities involving the generation and exchange of content. More intriguing than the question “What is a user?” is the question how the user’s activities fit in with conventional activities such as television viewing or (re)recording videos. Let me try to elucidate the concept of user by exploring three distinctive activities that inevitably merge in the evolving practice connected to internet platforms such as YouTube.
First of all, every user is a viewer and, by extension, a browser and evaluator of audiovisual content. On video-sharing sites viewing is a far more popular activity than producing: the “50 million users worldwide” boasted by YouTube are not all generators of content, on the contrary. Most of them are downloaders, and an unknown smaller number are (more or less frequent) uploaders. Not surprisingly, the heavy price tag for YouTube and similar sites is largely determined by their daily numbers of viewers—a fact well known to production companies and commercial distributors who can no longer afford not to post videoclips and film trailers on these sites to serve as teasers. But even if most users of videosites “passively” view a selection of clippings, their download activity contributes to the site’s navigability and usability. Every download counts towards the popularity of specific postings, even if this happens unwittingly via software filters. Labels and tags, indicating subject genres, are another mode to help the browser navigate through stacks of contents—an organizing principle reminiscent of both library indexes and television program guides. Beyond being viewers and browsers, a number of users are active evaluators, posting comments and ranking their favourite videos deploying the five-star system. The technological settings of sites like YouTube are such that the activities of viewing, browsing, and evaluating integrally add to the site’s operability.
Secondly, users have all the characteristics of consumers, but in addition they are sharers and community builders. There’s nothing new about social participation per se: even in the good old days of TV programming, consumers exchanged their enthusiasm for specific series via fanclubs and what we have come to call “taste communities” (Jenkins, 1992). But as Jenkins (2006: 26-7) observes, the new generation of convergence media gives rise to an intensified mode of participation that stimulate communal rather than individualist modes of reception. Due to the recentness of the video-sharing phenomenon, few academic efforts have yet been undertaken to study users’ habitual individual and communal routines empirically. But by carefully scrutinizing these sites’ interfaces, we may sketch the rough contours of an emerging social practice. For instance, every single download explicitly offers buttons for sharing, spreading or “flagging” a specific clip. The default mode of these sites is sharing, as evidenced for instance by DailyMotion which harbours groupings around videos themed “Greek Music”, “Manga”, “Cine Club” or “BuffyVerse”. A substantial percentage of videos posted on these sites show fragments of broadcast television content, such as funny episodes from favourite series. The custom of exchanging verbal accounts of a favourite scene watched on television seems to yield to sharing the actual clipping via a website, so users can test their tastes and sense of humour against those of others. Peer groups may consist of members who meet in real life or members who have never met beyond the virtual platform. The size of groups varies from a handful to hundreds or even thousands of likeminded users. Jenkins (2006: 20) aptly describes the ideal consumer as “active, emotionally engaged, and socially networked … the audience is inside the brand community.”
A third and decisive characteristic of users is indeed their ability and eagerness to create and post audiovisual content to their favourite sites—a creativity that comes in various flavours. The plainest category of self-produced content consists of amateur home videos, featuring everything from family situations to street accidents to angry politicians caught off guard by bystanders’ camera phones. Clearly, the genre is a descendant of America’s Funniest Home Videos and it is not uncommon to find uploads on GoogleVideo that have also been showcased on AFHV—a fact that may enhance the clip’s popularity. Another class of creative users deploys recorded TV-fragments to manipulate their content with the intention to criticize or poke fun. A famed example was a clip on YouTube featuring a dexterously manipulated Donald Trump in The Apprentice who barks the ominous oneliner “You’re fired!” at a stammering George W. Bush after one of his political blunders. Yet another group of users uploads short movies or music videos, carefully shot and edited by aspiring moviemakers or musicians. And needless to say, users turn the webcam onto themselves to film monologues, dances, songs, or any performance the upload of which may attract the attention of viewers. As some critics have noticed, video-sharing sites are extending the Idols-format from television to the internet, thus opening a window onto individuals’ “anxieties of YouTube fame.”4
In short, users of audiovisual websites both coincide with, and differ from, television viewers and consumers. The “you” in YouTube relates to videos as symbolic content to be viewed, browsed, and evaluated; as consumers of content, users engage in the habitual activities of content sharing and community building; and the technological conditions of video-sharing sites stimulate the creation and distribution of self-produced content in various forms. Indisputably, downloading, browsing and uploading are activities distinctly related to a web-based medium, but perhaps more noteworthy than these websites’ idiosyncratic features is their entrenchment in the old-fashioned medium of television. The dialogue between self-produced content and televised content is more than arbitrary: it is actually at the heart of YouTube’s and GoogleVideo’s technological and cultural constitution. Users are still viewers and consumers of television; the tube is part and parcel of a web-mediated interaction that urges the user to respond in kind—that is, in the same audiovisual language and through the same medium that was previously monopolized by broadcast and production companies. This is not to say that differences between amateurs and professionals are entirely cancelled out; and neither does the YouWeb completely erase the distinction between producers and consumers. The most defining feature of video-websites is that they accommodate both amateurs and (aspiring) professionals; they offer space to both downloaders and uploaders to interact with and relate to each other. The concept of user, far from being a replacement of familiar categories such as viewer and consumer, underscores their interdependency.
Broadcasting, Narrowcasting, and Homecasting
It is impossible to discuss the defining features of video-sites’ users without reconsidering the broadcast system’s altering function. Broadcasting provides a centralized point from which information and entertainment is efficiently distributed to citizens or consumers—a function crucial to the construction of communal (national, regional) identities. In recent decades, the “centralized point” of programming power has been complemented by the decentralized distribution of audiovisual content by production companies targeting specific niche audiences. Narrowcasting, as this phenomenon is commonly named, was made possible by the proliferation of hundreds of cable outlets engendering a fragmentation of audiences and leading to socially splintered mediascapes (Smith-Shomade, 2004). The explosion of digital channels in the early years of the new millennium added the possibility of personal viewing schedules and content targeted at specific consumer profiles of preferred lifestyles and cultural tastes. Lisa Parks (2004: 135) introduced the term “flexible microcasting” to refer to a “set of industrial and technological practices that work to isolate the individual cultural tastes of viewers/consumers in order to refine direct marketing in television—that is, the process of delivering specific audiences to advertisers.” But even the term “microcasting” is inadequate to cover the contribution of self-produced content via web-based video-sharing sites. In order to capture this latest development in the institutional reorganization of television and the mediascape, I will here propose and argue the productiveness of the term “homecasting”.
Before going on to specify this concept, I need to point at two potential fallacies in the introduction of neophyte terms as part of a genealogical pattern. First, ever since the popularization of the Internet, in the mid-1990s, technology gurus have prophesied the decline and eventual demise of broadcasting (Gilder 1994; Miller and Allen, 1995). The trendy expression “postbroadcasting” has come to signify the idea that television, after its convergence with the Internet and other digital technologies, will gradually disappear as a distinct institutional practice. Projections of a “postbroadcasting age” are generally warranted by a deterministic logic: they tend to reduce “broadcasting” to a technological system that is bound to affect social use. When Raymond Williams defined broadcasting in 1974, however, he referred to a technological system as well as to its manifestation as a social institution through cultural forms (programs). Williams insisted that the adoption of new technological systems is not enough to establish a new institutional practice, since technology, social use, and cultural form always evolve in conjunction. It is important to preserve this kind of complexity when introducing the concept of homecasting. Secondly, the phrase “postbroadcasting” induces the danger of subscribing to a simple replacement theory of consecutive media constellations: narrowcasting replaced broadcasting and microcasting will further expedite television’s obsolescence. However, broadcasting never disappeared when narrowcasting gained popularity. Quite contrarily, Jostein Gripsrud (2004: 220-22) convincingly demonstrates the continued importance of broadcasting in its function to serve regional and national communities, even in a five-hundred-channel environment. And Lisa Parks (2004: 152) urges to revaluate the still central place of broadcasting in the age of flexible microcasting. We need to account for the complexities of media transformations rather than trumpet its revolutions when trying to make sense of a recent phenomenon.5
So when launching the term “homecasting”, we not only need to ask what it means and why we need this new concept, but we also need to define its position in relation to already existing institutional practices like broadcasting, narrowcasting, and, in its wake, microcasting. Homecasting is the use of special video-sharing websites to download and upload prerecorded, rerecorded, tinkered, and self-produced audiovisual content via personal computers. The term homecasting betrays its kinship to broadcasting on the one hand and “home video” on the other. Beyond the need for this term to indicate the technological convergence of TV and PC (Ledoux Book and Barnett, 2006), homecasting also denotes a hybrid institutional practice that is bound to further entwine the private and public spheres. And finally, we need this term to account for new cultural forms emerging from such practices. Let me succinctly explain each of these three aspects.
Homecasting as a Technological System
Couched in the rhetoric of technology, homecasting means two-way communication via the Internet—a form of transmission in which both parties involved transmit information—as opposed to the one-way distribution of audiovisual content involved in broadcasting and narrowcasting. It may be important to note that technological conditions never prohibited two-way traffic via the airwaves; economic and cultural forces historically defined the one-way communication vector in traditional broadcast systems like radio and television—a system that also instituted the social fissure between professional broadcasters and amateur producers and distributors.6 The current availability of (cheap) digital technologies may contribute to the transformation of an institutional practice, but technological conditions are never sufficient to explain an institutional shift towards the implementation of two-way via audiovisual systems. Indeed, users of homecasting channels such as YouTube have an array of affordable digital equipment at their disposal to produce and distribute audiovisual content from their personal computers, such as digital cameras, webcams, camera phones, and editing software, in addition to broadband connections. And yet, we also need to look at the organization of homecast structures (as opposed to broadcast structures) in order to explain the growing popular affection for two-way audiovisual communication.
Whereas broadcast-activity is confined to a centralized space and a central agency that controls the supply and deliverance of signals, the Internet connotes a space for purposeful activity where reception and production of signals occurs from numerous individual nodes in the network. Feeds of this two-way traffic are neither provided for nor controlled by a central production/distribution agency; at most, homecast-organizations such as YouTube or GoogleVideo set the regulations for trafficking, but control over compliance with these rules is in the hands of anonymous users working from their homes.7 The absence of a centralized sender and the potential for two-way signalling constitutes the most profound difference with conventional broadcast or narrowcast organizations, rendering their structure more like that of telephone company than like that of a broadcast organization. It may be somewhat premature to predict a bright future for independent content producers, but one of the key aspects of homecast technology is its capability to remove the (central) distributor entirely from the process (Ha, Dick, and Ryu 2003). Families, political activists, and garage bands are now equally capable of streaming their messages across the Internet, be it person-to-person or worldwide. It will take more than a little organizational effort for broadcast companies to incorporate decentralized sender activity into their unilateral business models, rendering confrontations between broadcast and narrowcast channels even more interesting.
Homecasting as a Social Institution
And yet, homecasting will never replace or pre-empt traditional broadcasting; on the contrary, the ultimate convergence of PC and TV aims at a technological fluidity of systems that lets audiovisual content flow across multiple channels, resulting in “ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture” (Jenkins, 2006: 243). Contemporary broadcast organizations are currently renegotiating their relationship with the new kids on the block, such as rapidly growing media-mogul Google, not because they like this development per se, but because it is crystal clear that user-generated content is a high value-added product that will attract the interest of advertisers. Homecasters, after all, show a tendency to fashion their own “target groups” of users with like-minded tastes and lifestyles—a commercial asset that has not escaped the attention of advertising agencies. If NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS can be considered the construction companies of the media world, YouTube and GoogleVideo are likely to become the Home Depots of the television industry. They cater to the do-it-yourself segment of the content industry, offering raw feedstock of video and delivering the software tools for home assembly, the way Home Depot sells lumber and hardware, paint and jackhammers. People like to appropriate and create audiovisual content just as they like to build, renovate, or remodel their homes. In recent years, there has been a sharp rise in the sales of digital video cameras, camera phones with video capabilities and photoshop software. Rather than delivering end-products to the consumers’ home, the new intermediaries offer semi-manufactured goods and tools to be appropriated by individual users.
Homecasters thus propose a profoundly different relationship to the socio-cultural practice of television, a relationship that, at first sight, seems to bear more resemblance to the making of homevideos than to watching TV-programs. For decades, people have spent their leisure time filming family life and showing off the results to neighbours or relatives. But upon closer analysis, we can see that distribution via video-sites reaches circles far beyond those of families and friends: most uploading activity either caters to specific audience groups of anonymous individuals who have expressed common interests (equalling the intentions of “narrow-”casting) or is geared toward the widest possible audience (equalling the intentions of “broad”-casting). Many interfaces’ default modes betray users’ inclination to open up their personal lives to the virtual universe, and to commit individual expressions to anonymous audiences. Broadcasting conventionally signifies the central institution located within the public sphere, whose task is to make essential information, knowledge and cultural experiences available to all members of society. Homecasting accommodates the individual in the private sphere who feels the urge to make personal opinions, insights and experiences available to everyone out there. To bend a familiar cliché: if broadcasting opens a window onto the world, homecasting deploys the same looking-glass to have the world stare right back into the living room.
Whereas broadcasting is conventionally associated with the formation of national and regional identities, and narrowcasting engenders viewers’ identification with ethnic, lifestyle or special interest communities, homecasting capitalizes on personal expression and identity building by means of posting one’s own creative content on the web. Nevertheless, the social activities attributed to the three types of “casting” are closely interconnected and mutually inclusive. Identity building and individual expression do not take place outside the sphere of broadcast media: in fact, there is no space outside the world of media, but that mediated world is an integral part of everyday life, inundating the minds of people with numerous modes of identification. One of the most striking ambitions of YouTube users is to become part of the professional media world of stars and fame, a desire expressed most acutely by music-video sites such as SellaBand and GarageBand, where users are carved up into “artists” and “believers”: believers buy “shares” in aspiring artists’ creative endeavours who can thus collect enough funds to record a CD in a professional studio. Taped performances of VJs, comedians, and rappers abound on MySpace, where some young posters announce their modest goals to “cut mega-deals with big entertainment companies”, to “be on the cover of Cosmopolitan” or to “sign a fat contract with MTV.” The explicit or implied goal of many homecasters to be broadcast on television illustrates how the mediascape provides a seamless space for “upward mobility” in terms of recognition by, successively, few, many and mass audiences. On all levels, homecasting is tightly interwoven with broadcasting. This double-bind of mediated dependency is part of a more general trend toward the public mediation of private life—a trend to which John Thompson (1995: 215) alerted us ten years before the emergence of the YouWeb:
The self becomes increasingly organized as a reflexive project through which the individual constructs… a sense of self-identity. At the same time, however, individuals are increasingly dependent on a range of social institutions and systems which provide them the means—both material and symbolic—for the construction of their life-projects.
Not coincidentally, YouTube’s website logo is “broadcast yourself”, connoting the close interconnection between the platforms of private and public expression, between self and world. Those platforms are becoming increasingly complex and interlocked, and consequently, their entanglement needs even more intensified scrutiny (Thompson, 2005).
Homecasting as Cultural Form
We can see a similar intertwining at the level of cultural form, the third aspect of this emerging institutional phenomenon besides technological conditions and social use. Broadcasting’s unique institutional product—the fruit of the creative audiovisual culture industry—are programs. Television programs have always been tradable and consumable goods that were produced for specific markets and were preferably also sold to other (national, regional) markets. Cultural forms, including TV-programs, were considered end products and were accordingly protected by laws regulating ownership and copyrights. Since the early 1990s, we have witnessed the emergence of formats as a new profitable unit of production and marketing in addition to programs. Formats leave room for local specification and production, rendering them attractive to local stations all over the globe; they lend themselves extremely well to incorporating local “ordinary” consumers to star in formula-driven reality shows tested in international markets (Waisbord, 2004). Despite the trends toward globalization and internationalization, TV-audiences still preferably identify with national or regional productions (Freedman, 2003). And more importantly, formats are commercially rewarding cultural forms, even if they are not “copyright-proof”.8 The fact that formats have become widely accepted in the broadcast-entertainment industry, attests to the industry’s ability to respond to new economical demands.
The new types of content produced and distributed by homecasters will be inevitably defined in contrast to programs and formats—cultural forms appropriated by broadcasting organizations. I think it is important to name and specify the type of content produced by homecasters as a means to carefully catalogue the cultural dynamics by which user agency is encouraged or inhibited. As legal scholar Rosemary Coombe (1998: 250) has convincingly argued, many of the most accessible and widely known cultural forms around which meanings are forged “are not shared in a singular collectivity, but are the private properties of corporations with economic interest in preserving their exclusivity.” She and other legal scholars (Lessig, 2002) promote the politics of recoding cultural forms, or coding new forms before they get cemented in juridical concepts that ground legal categories, as a significant critical strategy.
So what would be an appropriate term that covers the preferred cultural form of homecasting? “Fragment” and “clip” are inadequate words to describe the kind of content contributed to YouTube or GoogleVideo. Evidently, we can find many examples of clips and fragments posted on these websites, but “video clips” refers to ready-made cultural forms (usually music-videos) and “fragments” suggests that the average posting is cut from pre-existing content. Perhaps the word “snippet” best characterizes the new cultural form promoted by homecasting channels. In contrast to customary programs, snippets are of limited length, potentially ranging from several seconds to several hours, but the bulk of postings averages between three and six minutes. “Snippet” also covers the fragmentary nature of most uploads, even if they imitate the begin-middle-end form of a polished audiovisual production. Although most snippets are one-time contributions, they may be accessed serially, for instance, when the same uploader posts a line of thematically connected videos.9 But arguably the most crucial feature of snippets is their status as resource rather than product; they are meant for recycling in addition to storing, collecting, and sharing. Snippets, by common agreement, are posted by homecasters to be reused, reproduced, commented upon, or tinkered with.
You hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube's (and its successor's) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels. You also hereby grant each user of the YouTube Website a non-exclusive license to access your User Submissions through the Website, and to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display and perform such User Submissions as permitted through the functionality of the Website and under these Terms of Service. (http://www.youtube.com/t/terms, emphases added, JvD).
As said, naming and defining a distinctive cultural form as part of the institutional practice of homecasting is a deliberate strategy to assign user agency, as opposed to consumer agency. Although snippets are not the same as programs and will never replace the need for programs or formats, it is imperative to regard this cultural form in its own right. Extending the comparison between YouTube and Home Depot, it is equally preposterous to imagine an organization of broadcasters to legally frustrate or thwart the activities of homecasters than it is to conceive of a lobby of construction companies trying to prohibit home owners from remodelling, renovating or even completely demolishing and rebuilding the house they once bought from these companies. And yet, consumers who take a short clip from recorded television content or from the DVD they already paid for, and use it as a resource in their own creative product, are liable to be prosecuted as a result of copyright laws that increasingly deny users the right to cite or rephrase parts of intellectual end products such as programs, clips, or films (Lessig, 2004). Communication theorist Tarleton Gillespie (2006: 664) makes a strong case for the user’s right to tinker with technology and content, as he argues against software and hardware being legally protected from user’s interference by Digital Rights Management and other flagging systems: “The maker must be able to experience culture not as something to be consumed but as raw material for more production and to experience themselves as having agency with that material.” Sites such as YouTube and GoogleVideo, which are currently in the process of defining their legal and economic position as homecasting institutions, have to strike a delicate balance between the claims of users as rightful creators and tinkerers of content, and the proprietary claims of broadcasters as legal owners of some of the content that is tinkered with. Therefore, it is crucial to not define the current debate on video-sharing sites exclusively in terms of market economics or legal ownership, but to phrase the discussion in culturally relevant terms that emphasize the coevolution of technological systems, social institutions, and cultural forms.
Television 2.0: The Next Generation
Just as media and cultural theorists responded to technical and social changes in the 1980s and 1990s by adjusting their conceptual framework to account for active television consumers and narrowcast practices, they should now assume responsibility to theorize these concepts in the wake of social and technological transformations pertaining to web-based video-sharing practices. The debate on user-generated video content has only just begun, and if we take the legal dispute over illegal downloading in the audio-sector as an indication of what might happen to the audiovisual segment of the mediascape, the signals are not very promising. Therefore, media scholars should design of relevant theoretical frameworks, thus naming and procuring spaces for cultural interaction and creation, before those spaces are entirely defined by industrial players who set the rules. After all, when confronted with the need for extra living space, we should evaluate the building’s structure by inspecting its very foundations before adding on new rooms.
According to Yale law professor Yochai Benkler (2006: 2), the transformation of our media ecology has reached a critical moment, as we are witnessing a growing stand-off between the “cooperative non-market production of information and culture” versus the “incumbents of the industrial information economy.” Legislative and judicial forces have formed a so-called enclosure movement to advance proprietary models of information production at the expense of burdening non-market, non-proprietary production. The really urgent issue over the next few years will be: will broadcast producers leave enough space for the socio-cultural practices of Web-based audiovisual content production? What are the options, liabilities, and opportunities facing the new owners (and users) of homecast channels? And how will conventional broadcast companies adjust to the inevitable growth of the do-it-yourself branch of the television industry? Will “Television 2.0” become a seamless web of broadcast, narrowcast, and homecast channels in which broadcast-producers insist on the demarcation between old regimes of privileged production while users choose to ignore them? Or will the various cultural forms peacefully coexist once a consensus is reached over traffic regulation? It is too early to tell which direction this transformation will take us, but this does not discharge academics from the responsibility to sketch the stakes involved in this (ideological) struggle.
In order to explore the possible minefield, let us return once more to the two events that in part prompted this essay: the acquisition of YouTube by Google and the nomination of “you” as Time Magazine’s person of the year. Clearly, Google obviously has strong confidence in the communities flocking around YouTube, as evidenced by its willingness to pay a hefty sum per user in October 2006.10 By buying up YouTube, Google knowingly assumed the risks of substantial lawsuits from big players in the content business, so the company’s lawyers immediately started to strike deals, settle claims, and solve disputes before they reach the court room. At this moment, Hollywood producers hesitate whether to see YouTube-Google as friend or foe: either they go after them and use their historic prowess in electronic media distribution to impose their rules on this newcomer, or they side with them in creating new business and marketing models that help homecasting channels to create buzz for conventional television products.11 Whichever turn the face-off will take, it should be clear that both broadcasters and new media companies such as Google are after the same bounty: attention from advertisers and users (Caldwell, 2004). One way or another, future users of YouTube should be aware of how innovative advertising strategies are infiltrating the homecast-environment that used to be virtually freed from commercial exploitation.
You are directing and authorizing Google to, and granting Google a royalty-free, non-exclusive right and license to, host, cache, route, transmit, store, copy, modify, distribute, perform, display, reformat, excerpt, facilitate the sale or rental of copies of, analyze, and create algorithms based on the Authorized Content in order to (i) host the Authorized Content on Google's servers, (ii) index the Authorized Content; (iii) display, perform and distribute the Authorized Content, in whole or in part, in the territory(ies) designated in the Metadata Form, in connection with Google products and services now existing or hereafter developed, including without limitation for syndication on third party sites. (https://upload.video.google.com/video_terms.html , emphases added JvD)
By signing the agreement, users of GoogleVideo subscribe to a substantially different system of homecasting than YouTube regulars. Googlevideo subtly opens up user-generated content to information marketers, (commercial) search engines, and advertisers. Another difference with YouTube’s videosharing site is that GoogleVideo offers uploaders the possibility to showcase content for a fee, thus generating revenue that is subsequently shared by Google and the “owners” of intellectual property.12 While such arrangement does not principally counteract the system of free use and exchange of content, it is one step away from a license that advocates the use of content as creative resource. In other words, if YouTube’s definition of homecasting comes close indeed to what Benkler described as a “cooperative nonmarket production,” GoogleVideo’s organizational model positions itself in between conventional broadcast models and creative commons models.
This is not to say that GoogleVideo will impose its conditions for use onto YouTube—in a statement to the press, the new owners vowed to respect YouTube’s “distinct brand identity”—but it would be naïve to think that YouTube’s policies will remain unaffected by “googlization” (van Dijck, 2007). It is clear that Google needs time to figure out its preferred strategy, a strategy that involves the risk to lose its largest asset: some of the most prolific voluntary user communities in the new branch of homecasting. And this is where the crucial position of Time Magazine’s heroic “you” comes in. The agency of users, over the past few years, has gained enormous clout and has led to a worldwide emancipation of consumers and viewers. But the agency of users is still fragile and ill-defined, as they are deliberately anarchistic in asserting their rights, needs, liberties, and duties. There are no unions for users, but neither is there a friendly corporate climate that warmly welcomes these new “unpaid” labourers to the media market, unless they dedicate this labour magnanimously and unconditionally to the commercial interests of established companies. Part of the strategy to enhance user’s agency and conscious awareness, is to analyze the various available institutional models of homecasting; it is crucial that users are aware of increasingly sophisticated technological, economic, and legal strategies deployed by media companies to channel virtual spaces of seemingly spontaneous, uninhibited audiovisual creativity. Baring these mechanisms and exploring the stakes in the battle between old and new forces in the mediascape is a first step towards the emancipation of users.
My deliberate introduction of “homecasting” and “snippets” as potentially fruitful concepts here is not an attempt to coin a few neologisms that render exotic phenomena intelligible to non-academics. An important task of media scholars is to cast the debate over user-generated audiovisual content in terms of culture. Viewers, consumers, and users are distinct cultural categories with different types of agency. Broadcasting, narrowcasting, and homecasting embody dissimilar institutional practices, fulfilling complementing social and cultural roles in the continuum of media space. And programs, formats, and snippets deserve to be inspected as cultural forms, each signifying a succinct product of creativity. Only if we understand the intricacies of interdependent yet centrifugal forces in our culture, can we make conscious decisions in how to act as cultural agents. Creating a theoretical framework for understanding new media space in the light of existing relations requires a concerted effort by scholars from various academic disciplines, including technology, design, economics, law, social science, psychology, and the humanities. My modest contribution from cultural theory, far from being an end product, is no more than a “snippet”: it is meant to invite colleagues to build and add upon a new, fortified foundation for understanding television in the wake of contemporary changes in the mediascape and, more importantly, to help define its future shape. Historically, academia and science have proven to be the greatest beneficiaries of a “2.0” mentality, where good and bad ideas always yield to better.
1 For the remainder of this article, the term “consumer” refers not to “buyer” or “customer” of television content, but to the “recipient situated in the domestic context of TV consumption.”
2 The emergence of a new type of user of audio-visual content is neither the cause nor the result of technological changes; changes in the social position and role of the recipient and our understanding thereof have always been intricately interwoven with the techno-cultural matrix from which they arise. When relating the emergence of digitized technologies to the user of audiovisual content, this link should not be interpreted as a teleological vector befitting a deterministic logic. On the contrary, the relocation of viewing activities from the television screen to the computer screen and the mediation of audiovisual content by digital filtering systems and distribution software can never by itself account for the profound changes in user dynamics.
3 In the past, there have been various attempts at capturing the new consumer conceptually, for instance by labelling him or her as “prosumer”—a hybrid term welding “professional producer” onto “consumer” (Toffler, 1980). However, even if the term recognizes the blurring boundaries between amateur and professional and between producer and consumer—an issue definitely at stake in this paradigm shift—the term “prosumer” inadvertently asserts the very possibility and desirability of this distinction.
4 Ben McGrath (2006), in his hilarious essay “It Should Happen to You” in The New Yorker
(13 October 2006) paints a painstaking portrait of the anxieties of teenagers who use the Internet (and particularly sites such as YouTube) to launch future careers as models
, singers or actresses. In an equally sharp piece titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Web” in The Nation
(14 January 2007), Lakshmi Chaudry argues that YouWeb’s greatest successes have “capitalized on our need to feel significant and admired and, above all, to be seen.”
5 I concur with Thorburn and Jenkins (2003) who argue to understand media convergence as a process instead of a static termination so we can recognize “such convergences occur regularly in the history of communications and that they are especially likely to occur when an emerging technology has temporarily destabilized the relations among existing media” (3).
6 Susan Douglas (1999) lucidly describes how radio “hams” or amateur operators, ever since the early years of radio in America, were not simply a group of idiosyncratic tinkerers with technology, but how they always formed a strong society of users “with its own language, mores, rituals, and ethos… they are a distinct collectivity whose history and anthropological characteristics have inflected the broadcast culture, and certainly the evolution of radio, in profound ways” (330). The television industry, from its early inception, channelled its technological innovativeness and prowess to fit the institutional model of broadcasting that was meanwhile adopted in most countries. As Brian Winston (1998) says: “Television then follows the path beaten by radio to the home” (112).
8 As Freedman (2003: 34) observes, format license fees are not the same as outright control of programs: “Financial reward comes less from owning the format than from making or distributing the programme in particular markets.” Local implementations of general formats are regulated by contracts, which commonly contain detailed specifications of how a format, for instance a game show, should be executed with local players. Not surprisingly, the legal ownership of formats is more difficult to protect from piracy than programs.
9 For instance, a popular series of taped experiments featured on GoogleVideo is produced by a duo called EepyBirds
; their acts with mentos-mints in Diet Coke bottles to trigger large fountains attracted widespread attention due to their hilarious style and deadpan performance.
10 The New York Times accounted the figure of 32 dollars per user, dividing the estimated total number of real users (about 50 million) by the sum paid by Google. See Andre Ross Sorkin and Peter Edmonston, “Google is Said to Set Sights on YouTube”, The New York Times, 7 October 2006 (digital edition, technology section.)
11 Also see: Laura M. Holson, “Hollywood asks YouTube: Friend or Foe?” in: The New York Times, 15 January 2007, digital edition, business section.