Burgess, Jean and Joshua Gree. YouTube: Digitial Media and Society Series. Polity Press,
2009, 172 pages.
I am reviewing this work for its own sake, and also including comments concerning the applicability of the book for discussions in church (and other non-profit organizations).
This concise and focused book in the Digital Media and Society Series (http://www.polity.co.uk/) brings the tools of sociology and critical theory to bear on the video-sharing phenomenon YouTube, a site co-created, as Burgess points out, by YouTube Inc., “users who upload content to the site, and audiences who engage that content.” The authors conduct their research of YouTube by examining trends in video content that was most favorited, most viewed, most discussed, and most responded during six days of samples in the fall of 2007. Their method of interpretation is an interesting admixture of literary theory, sociological analysis, critical theory, and media studies.
Perhaps the most significant change in my thinking after reading the book is to stop thinking of YouTube as just one thing. Instead, I now see how the site as a platform performs a variety of functions, some of which are especially applicable for congregational mission and ministry. YouTube’s status as a meta business—the “new category of business that enhances the value of information developed elsewhere and thus benefits the original creators of that information”—is the largest contributing factor in this regard.
1) Cultural archive: Burgess writes, “It is possible to exhaust your own capacity for nostalgia before exhausting the possibilities of the vintage material available on YouTube already… a record of contemporary global popular culture (including vernacular and everyday culture) in video form, produced and evaluated according to the logics of cultural value that emerge from the collective choices of the distributed YouTube community.” I have not conducted a study to learn to what extent Christians have participated in making use of YouTube as a cultural archive, but I hope they are, and I would like to contribute. This should and can extend well beyond simply posting recordings of worship services and sermons on-line, but observing how YouTube functions as a cultural archive may point out to what degree Christianity is less engaged in culture creation in the video/visual medium, or perhaps even whether Christians are as engaged in crafting culture that can be archived.
2) Passive viewing of popular media: YouTube allows users to share traditional media from all kinds of sources and perspectives. You can watch educational programming on YouTube, clips of movies and comedy, concert footage, videos, etc. Again, this is an under-utilized but essential resource for the church. Kids in my confirmation class, for example, make use of this feature to watch videos from their re:form confirmation curriculum in between confirmation classes. And although it does not count as “popular” media, items I have posted on YouTube offering amateur history and footage of the previous congregation I served, have been influential in people visiting our worship, but even more importantly, gaining a richer understanding of church history and rural church culture (for footage, simply search for East Koshkonong on YouTube).
3) Participatory engagement with user-created content: For YouTube, participatory culture is core business. This ought to be true of the church as well, but often it is not. Many members of the church approach the church from a consumerist mentality. Many leaders in the church are guilty of treating members as consumers. One of the most intriguing charts in the book is a comparison of user-created and traditional media across the measures of popularity. Essentially, there is a correlation between user creation and user participation. In other words, more of the most discussed and most responded content on YouTube are user-created; more of the traditional media (television excerpts, movie clips, etc.) are in the most viewed category but less discussed and interacted with.
This should tell us a lot about how members of congregations will engage the “content” of congregational ministries. So, for example, although sermons and other traditional media in the church will remain the “most viewed” and perhaps (hopefully?) “most favorited,” content created by members such as a small group bible study or social justice advocacy will likely be the “most responded” and “most discussed” content. The church then functions as the “meta” organization that hosts and stewards all these forms of content creation and sharing.
Two additional comments: First, this book, together with many books on the new media, highlights the gaming and play aspects of new media. For example, when there are “flame wars” on YouTube, often they are quite self-aware, exhibiting how “flame wars can be thought of as ludic events: structured games that are part of the fun of participating in the social network.” The church has simply not attended well enough as of yet to gaming and play in theology, church leadership, and life. This is a wake-up call. So, for example, when an octogenarian popular user of YouTube offered courses on social networking for folks in his peer group, he says, “You must be prepared to be a child again, to learn by playing around.”Second, there is so much worry about the moral content of YouTube that attention to this aspect outstrips conversation that can help build digital literacy in a social networking era. So, for example, John Hartley, in an appended essay in the volume, can learn based on the fact that certain sites are walled off at school (including YouTube) “that formal education’s top priority is not to make them digitally literate but to ‘protect’ them from ‘inappropriate’ content and online predators.” Ensuring the safety of children and training in behavior are important. However, in an era so reliant on social networking and new forms of media, equipping youth with the necessary tools to creatively engage the new media is the most important way to offer them tools that will protect them from it. There simply is no other way, short of disconnecting youth from all media.
 Of course, the big difference between doing critical analysis of Youtube, as compared to, say, a novel is that the “scale at the level which YouTube represents tests the limits of the explanatory power of even our best grounded or particularist accounts” (7).