The Impact of YouTube on Popular Culture

Popular culture can be defined in various ways. Depending on one’s definition, popular culture can encompass anything from forms of dance to movies on the big screen. Regardless of one’s definition, it is clear that media has a huge role in reflecting and shaping pop culture. YouTube, a popular video hosting website, is playing an important role in defining current pop culture on a global scale. YouTube’s focus has always been Broadcast Yourself ( In today’s popular culture, broadcasting yourself has become so mainstream that those who do not post videos on the Internet are often put out of social circles. It is possible for a teenager to be shunned and rejected if he or she cannot be found on YouTube. Those that can be found on the video hosting site sometimes post videos of themselves doing extraordinary acts in an attempt to fit in with the crowd or to compete in a game of can you top this?
The impact of YouTube has had both positive and negative effects on today’s popular culture. The popular video sharing website has played a central role in creating instant Internet celebrities, promoting musical performers, providing opportunities for political and religious speech, and creating a battleground for issues of censorship, copyright infringement, and privacy rights. All of these phenomena have been the outcome of simply giving people opportunity to post their personal creative expressions in a public forum. YouTube is an outstanding website – and piece of technology – that has radically transformed popular culture and the way we think about broadcasting our voices and our personalities to the world.
YouTube has created loads of Internet celebrities, people who become famous when their videos spread like a virus, eventually being viewed by millions. For these users, Internet fame has benefited their lives in truly unexpected ways. An example would be a YouTube user and former receptionist, Brooke Brodack, who was signed by NBC’s Carson Daly for an eighteen-month development contract (Hardy). Her comedy video had been viewed by over 45 million people, which led to her discovery and lucrative job offer (Hardy). Another example would be the fictional video blog of lonelygirl15, which gained great popularity and a huge fan base of subscribers. Lonelygirl15 turned out to be the creative expression of three writers. When they were finally discovered, they were offered millions to develop interactive online content (Gannes). Some Internet celebrities posted their videos on YouTube hoping to be discovered, but others like Gary Brolsma, known to many as the “numa numa guy,” were just posting for the fun of it (Feur and George). Brolsma has since become famous, and his video has become a well known piece of popular culture.
Among those hoping to be discovered on YouTube, viewers will find many bands and musical groups who have uploaded music videos of their songs in hopes of building a larger fan base. Bands such as Avenged Sevenfold have created their own channels, complete with enough songs to fill several albums. Performing artists have also been known to post entire concerts through YouTube’s easy to use interface as a way to get their fans hyped for future tours or concerts. The phenomena of bands posting on YouTube is not just an American event. Many foreign music groups have also been spotted throughout YouTube’s Music section. European bands such as Epica, Sonata Arctica, and the popular Gothic rock band, Nightwish, have seen their reputation spread like wildfire through YouTube. As these bands tour the globe, fans record videos at concerts, and with the power of technology, upload it directly to YouTube from their Blackberries or iPhones. The power of video sharing has revolutionized the way bands and performing artists get their products to their fans and promote themselves without the aid of recording companies.
YouTube has also created an electronic town hall where people can air their opinions on their governments, the police, or authority in general. Naturally, most of the grievances are negative, blaming the government for all of their problems. Among the negative comments, some might be legitimate because there are certain things the government does not handle well. People have every right to complain, and through YouTube they have a forum when other channels do not work. Of course, some of the complaints are not valid, or perhaps have some validity but are too overwhelming and dramatic. The media coverage of the presidential debates of the 2008 elections were fueled by videos on YouTube – a first in presidential debate history (CNN Political Ticker). While YouTube creates a space for free speech, it is still up to viewers to be thoughtful about the content of what they watch.
Besides finding people debating political views, one will also find on YouTube an enormous volume of religious and anti-religious content. With a quick search, the viewer can find video interpretations of the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, or the Book of Mormon. Viewers can also find religious rantings of why each of these texts are superior to the others. Atheists also promote their viewpoints on YouTube, and Christians respond in kind. It is possible to find lengthy video threads of debating videos. One can even find debates between followers of less known deities as seen in the “Flying Spaghetti Monster vs. Invisible Pink Unicorn” video. YouTube plays an active role in allowing religious people the freedom to broadcast their beliefs, and their opponents to broadcast rebuttals.
Naturally, all of this free speech creates controversy. Where there is free speech, it won’t be long before there is censorship, copyright infringement, and legal battles over privacy rights. One clear example that highlights these concerns is the creation of mash-up videos. Mash-up videos are videos created by an author splicing video clips from existing sources with audio from other sources. For example, a Harry Potter fan might slice various clips from the many Harry Potter movies that have been released in order to create a false trailer for an upcoming movie. He or she might add cool music to the background or eye-catching titles to grab the audience’s attention. He or she might also add fitting voice-overs to compliment the music playing in the background. The video author is creating a new work of art from existing resources, but the controversy comes in because the author has used someone else’s copyrighted work.
YouTube has an obligation to remove videos that violate national and international copyright laws. Typically, it is the music companies that have been enforcing their copyrights, so YouTube’s response is often to mute the audio track on a mash-up video. Some cry “censorship,” but the issues are never quite that simple. Unfortunately, if one tries to use YouTube as source to learn more about what does and what does not apply as copyright infringement, one will find videos from multiple perspectives on the issue. There aren’t many lawyers who have posted clear instructions for users on this matter.
The process of censoring videos on YouTube is also highly subjective. YouTube employees may do some direct observation of user videos, but the website relies more heavily on its users to report suspicious activity. On each video page there is a red flag that displays under the video player that a viewer can click on to flag the video as inappropriate. Clicking on this link will take the viewer to a page where they can explain why they believe the video is inappropriate. The report gets sent to a customer service representative so that it can be investigated. However, if a video gets multiple reports the video may be automatically taken down without investigating the claim. There are many upset YouTube users who claim that their videos were removed even though they were not inappropriate. These often include videos with religious or political content as well as those that are artistic mash-ups of existing materials. The videos of user complaints can also be found on YouTube.
Most recently, YouTube has been policing uploads to cut down on the number of potential copyright infringements. A new uploading technology that they have put in place screens uploads and catches some copyrighted content before it is fully uploaded. When copyrighted content is detected, the upload is rejected. YouTube is applying a technology solution to a problem that was created by technology.
The use of the Internet and video sharing websites like YouTube has allowed millions of people to reach larger or more targeted audiences. Some post merely to entertain, others to inform the public about a topic, some to debate critical viewpoints, and some to express their creativity in synthesizing materials to create a new work of art. This has created a number of Internet celebrities, given bands a place to test their popularity, allowed political supporters to promote their causes, created space for religious debate, and allowed some to discover their artistic selves. Because YouTube made it easy for people to broadcast themselves, they did. While this has sometimes led to controversy, the website continues to evolve and adapt with the culture, and YouTube is finding innovative solutions while attempting to preserve free speech. Whether one judges the impact of YouTube positively or negatively, the reality is that the video sharing website has become an influential force in today’s society and has forever transformed our options for broadcasting our voices and our personalities to the world.

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