YouTube Essay: Footnotes

This post is a short addition to my previous post, “Disruptive YouTube” – two footnotes that I think merit their own post.

The first is that it took 20 years for email to have enough impact on society that the US Postal Service is in trouble. Although it may take that long for YouTube to be visibly disruptive at a large scale, YouTube is already disrupting television to some extent, with programmers painfully aware of the competition that YouTube represents, particularly to their younger viewers. YouTube itself is a fairly compelling “channel”, with a search engine interface (which itself is more powerful and compelling to savvy users than simple channel number buttons). Also, it may take considerably less time for YouTube to be disruptive, since its audience is already internet savvy to some degree (particularly the commenters). YouTube itself has gone “viral” at this point, since YouTube as a platform is carried as a meme on virtually every viral video, so millions of views on one video may also mean millions of new and converted YouTube users. And many will notice the “upload” button, create an account, and contribute something of their own, becoming a participating content provider rather than an audience member.

The second footnote is that I’m noticing more and more how beloved some videos seem to be (note 50% in this context means 50% of the votes on the video are Likes). Some, like Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack!”, with 99% (over 120,000 likes!), may be expected to be likeable. “Something Stupid – Frank & Nancy Sinatra” has an incredible 99.7%, with over two thousand likes, and dislikes in the single digits. More surprising are David Bowie’s “Starman”, with 98% and Boy George, with 98.1%. “Guns N’ Roses – Paradise City” has 99.2%, with over 70,000 votes, and over 20 million views (this is no mean sample). The controversial Sinead O’Connor got 98.9%. Apparently now that the controversy has died down, kids like her music, all the same (At this point, I should come out and say that I believe that teenagers are by far YouTube’s largest consistent demographic – exploring/surfing YouTube instead of just getting a video, watching it, and closing it). Some of these acts seem to be liked more now than when they first came out.

What is going on? How is this level of unanimity on the internet, often with tens of thousands of participants (in Sinead O’Connor’s case, almost 65,000 votes), remotely possible? Surely not everyone watching a particular video got there completely intentionally. Sometimes YouTube makes suggestions to people that seem like a stretch based on the current video (“Don’t touch that dial! Something’s coming right up!”). So we have to consider that a portion of the audience got there randomly. In addition, one would expect a population of trolls to vote any video down, even the most likeable ones, just because they can. Perhaps clicking “Dislike” is not gratifying enough for a troll, who clicks “Like” and proceeds to write something obnoxious. In any case, this mystery makes the relative unanimity even more impressive.

I should clarify that this unanimity is not a given, by any means. Good old “Charlie bit my finger”, which has as of this writing received 107,496 Dislike votes, still has a score of 88.3% likes. A budget speech by President Obama given on April 13, 2011 stands at 80.4% – not nearly as popular as the music videos, but considerably higher than his current approval rating. And poor Rebecca Black’s Friday received only 22.7% (with 65,427 likes and 222,923 dislikes). Her second video did slightly better with 36.9% (of close to a million votes). This lack of unanimity seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

This data is interesting and valuable, and thankfully, public. I predict that YouTube will continue to be an excellent way of judging the zeitgeist for some time to come. More importantly, it is increasingly clear that there is some sort of agreed-upon shared cultural heritage that is being celebrated (“Liked”) on YouTube. If a music video is capable of receiving tens of thousands of positive votes ten, twenty, forty, or even eighty years after it first came out, it seems safe to say that the video has staying power. Some of it may be nostalgia, and some of it is the continuing novelty of YouTube. But there is a crowd-sourced curation that is happening on YouTube, and it merits our attention.

UPDATE: My favorite example of negative feedback on YouTube may be “Fox Business blasts The Muppets for brainwashing America’s kids with anti-corporate, liberal agenda“, a video with over 222,000 views and 3,300 votes, 94% of them negative. It seems that the YouTube community is almost unanimous in despising an attack on the beloved Muppets.

–Daniel Tsadok