Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Anthropology of YouTube

If you think YouTube is just goofy videos of skateboarding dogs and silly but painful pratfalls, then you've missed something significant about this site. Michael Wesch, professor of anthropology at Kansas University, has been studying the Internet -- and specifically YouTube -- for some time.

His video, "Web 2.0... The Machine is Us/ing Us" should be required viewing for anyone trying to do anything online (in my opinion).

Wesch recently posted his Library of Congress address, "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube."

So why should you care what some egghead has to say about videos with kittens playing the piano? Well first, what he talks about is more fundamental than that -- he gets at the underlying social forces that drive the YouTube phenomenon. Second, Wesch is an academic with real-world experience in his field, so his observations and conclusions have been documented and tested. And any business with an online presence -- even if it doesn't post YouTube videos -- needs to understand the core concepts Wesch presents.

His concept of context collapse is probably the thing most traditional businesses stumble upon. Basically (if you haven't watched the video yet), the idea is this: once something's made available on the Internet, other people can take it and use all or parts of it for their own self-expression -- and the original creator has no control over its use.

Now this is the kind of thing that keeps RIAA and MPAA lawyers busy round-the-clock issuing take-down orders and filing lawsuits in a vain attempt to hold back the tsunami with an umbrella.

But it's also the kind of thing that made Jonathan Coulton a star. While Prince goes after a mom for the background music heard in a video of her child dancing, Coulton encouraged people to use his music to create their own videos -- and they have. Each one raises Coulton's profile, and each one represents another way for his music to reach potential fans.

Coulton's embrace of YouTube culture has helped him monetize his music while the major labels continue to spend huge sums of money to wage war on their artists' biggest fans.

Which is the smarter marketing strategy? Which one does your business embrace?

Invest an hour. Watch the video.

- Ralph

Day 52 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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