While discussing YouTube, José van Dijck argues that the site’s interface influences the popularity of videos through ranking tactics that promote popular favourites (Reader, page 94). How do ranking tactics impact on the formation online ‘communities’?
YouTube recently launched a vote-based competition, where members of “the YouTube community” could vote for their favourite video-producing artists. By way of majority, the results of the competition reflected each artists’ popularity amongst YouTubers. The community-based competition was appropriately titled “myYouTube”.
This latest community development by the administrators and owners of YouTube supports the argument proposed in van Dijck’s ‘Users like You? Theorizing Agency in User-Generated Content’. In her article, van Dijck (2009) challenges the perception of YouTube as a website that fosters a “participatory culture”, and proposes that instead, the administrators and owners of YouTube have attempted to create an online “community” using hidden software algorithms. Van Dijck (2009) asserts that although users are valuable “creators and arbiters of media content”, there has been little attention paid to the role that a website’s platform (and interface) performs in corralling these users into virtual “communities”. Van Dijck (2009) argues that concealed “algorithms” are used to “steer” the mass of users to particular videos, and specified “trends”, to help build and develop online “communities” that users can feel comfortable to share and discuss each others uploads.
YouTube’s “ranking tactics” inherent in the “top favourites”, “most viewed” and “most discussed” lists that lie within YouTube’s interface, play an important role in the formation of “online communities”. Lists such as these provide new and existing users with immediate access to the core of the YouTube “community” (Geisler 2007: Dijck 2009). When new users can easily identify the popular videos or current trends, they are given immediate access to the heart of the YouTube “community”. Through ranking “tactics”, users are steered in the direction of the majority, and as a consequence, feel included and a part of a YouTube culture or “community” that encourages the open sharing of information, ideas and most especially, video content (Geisler 2007: van Dijck 2009).
With “ranking tactics” creating something of a snowball effect in the online landscape (where the bigger, more popular videos become increasingly popular as their ‘relevance’ in search results increases), van Dijck (2009) questions whether “participating” in YouTube is really “participation” at all. If users routinely follow the trends of others (and are encouraged to via the site’s ‘trend’ and ‘most viewed’ interface elements), then the degree to which users are actually participating in the online community is seriously diminished (van Dijck 2009). Indeed, their agency over the website and the YouTube community is stifled by the website’s interface.
YouTube’s “myYouTube” feature is exemplifies both of van Dijck’s arguments. First, by encouraging users to “vote” for their favourite video artists, users are made a part of a virtual democracy that through the power of the majority can define which video artists are popular (and thus, superior). This in turn makes users feel a part of a Youtube “community”, encouraging the open sharing of information, ideas and videos. Second (and almost paradoxically), in creating an “online community” that revolves around what is popular or what is trending, the true participation of individual users is limited; instead of participating in the YouTube “community” as they please, they are encouraged to follow the pack and submit to the tyranny of the majority.
Tertiary to this lecture question, it would have been appropriate for van Dijck to further explain and develop her argument behind the economic value of online “communities”. We know that YouTube was purchased by Google for $1.65 billion – but Google were not buying the technology of YouTube’s software – Google were investing in the productivity of YouTube’s online community and essentially “buying the users” from YouTube’s URL… a “commodity” of sorts that YouTube never owned in the first place. To me, this seemed as though an appropriate avenue for elaboration.
It would have also been welcome for van Dijck to have discussed the importance of “Featured” videos in the YouTube system and interface. I think that the “promotion” of particular videos on YouTube invites an interesting discussion about equality and fairness on YouTube and the internet in general – YouTube claims that it’s “community belongs to [us]”, but clearly some users are more equal than others.
- Van Dijck, J., ‘Users like you?’, Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 41-58, 2009.
- Geisler, G., ‘Tagging Video: Conventions and Strategies of the YouTube Community’, 2007.
- Pauwels, L., ‘Strategic and tactical uses of internet design and infrastructure: the case of YouTube’, Journal of Visual Literacy Spring, Vol 28, No. 1, pp. 51-70, 2009.
- Jenkins, H., ‘Enabling Participation’ in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part 1), October 2006.