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March 14, 2009

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Too Big for Your Brain Alone

Magic Molly points to an essay about YouTube, which I want to pass on because it succumbs to a common fallacy of writing about the internet. I see it a lot, and it’s worth mentioning so you’ll start to notice it, too.

To kick things off, Mark Greif talks about YouTube’s most popular clip ever, The Evolution of Dance. Then he dives into “the two major reference points of YouTube video as it exists right now,” which he identifies as “the talent show” and “bits of television pulled from elsewhere.” He notices some patterns and points out some videos he likes. And he closes by saying YouTube ought to find a way to archive more TV. It’s all well-written, and fine as far as it goes.

The problem is that it doesn’t go very far at all.

The most popular clip on YouTube is not like the most popular show on TV. When American Idol airs, around 15% of people watching TV at that moment are watching it. That tells you something about TV as a whole, and even about our culture as a whole. But The Evolution of Dance — or any clip on any of YouTube’s most popular lists — represents such an infinitesimal fraction of YouTube’s total viewership that it tells you basically nothing about YouTube as a whole.

YouTube registered 6.3 billion video streams in January 2009.

Think about that. Or don’t, because it’s a number so big that it kinda just makes a brain go “plonk.” That’s the point. Like Google itself, YouTube exists now at web scale. And that’s a domain where our intuition, and our usual modes of analysis, don’t work anymore.

In his essay, Mark Greif talks about YouTube as if it’s a magazine, or a TV network — something you can get your head around and draw conclusions about. You know: YouTube is X; YouTube is not Y.

But YouTube is so big that X is more or less everything (with a few exceptions, like porn, and to his credit, Greif points that out) and Y is rapidly approaching zero. Trying to find patterns in YouTube is like trying to find patterns in the internet itself.

But let’s say you really want to find those patterns. It’s not all white noise; there’s got to be something interesting to discover. This is the important bit, and the reason I bothered to post: You can’t do it by clicking around.

The guys at Videosurf, a slick video search engine that crawls YouTube, will tell you that somewhere around 20% of all YouTube videos are… slide shows. Yes: still images in sequence. There are more slide shows on YouTube than music videos. More slide shows than the talent show clips Mark Greif talks about, and more slide shows than bits from TV.

But it’s really hard to see that as a YouTube user. The slide shows hang out on the skinny end of the long tail. To understand with any confidence just how significant they are, you need… well, you need a video search engine.

Now, this isn’t the case if you just want to operate in the hey-look-this-is-cool mode. Virginia Heffernan is a great example; she doesn’t claim to be saying Big Things About YouTube. Mark Greif, on the other hand — along with lots of other bloggers, media theorists, TV executives, and entrepreneurs — seems to be doing just that.

To understand these new kinds of systems, and to say interesting and useful things about them, is beyond the powers of a media critic alone.

Or maybe I should put it like this: A media critic in the age of scale can’t just know how to write an essay. He needs to know how to write a web crawler, and how to interpret the results.

Posted March 14, 2009 at 10:54 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Media Galaxy


There's a really good literary history book called Graphs, Maps, and Trees by Franco Moretti that basically makes the same argument about literature. Critics have basically always tried to draw huge conclusions about, say, the novel, by very closely reading a teeny tiny bit of what was published rather than turning some of that analytic energy towards more quantitative models of the whole. It's a really powerful argument, especially for someone like me who is roughly as interested in the words on a novel's page as the paper they're printed on (and the machines that did the printing, usw.)

But... I really do feel that you actually can say something useful about literature (and culture, history, politics, media...) by looking closely at a few privileged examples, whether they're privileged because of cultural consensus or weight of numbers or your argument that they're really interesting and important to look at. You might call this the enabling fallacy of intensive reading, or of aesthetic criticism -- the belief that you actually can use the part to discern the whole.

Heffernan's grace is that she takes YouTube or FunnyOrDie videos seriously as aesthetic objects. We need field guides, and we need postgame analysts -- people who help us find good stuff, and give us a space and language to talk about it. If that's skimming the surface, it's because it's supposed to be. As general readers, we're not interested (most of us) in 99.9% of those slideshows. We might actually click through to watch one of the videos that VH (or any of our other favorite cultural arbiters / coolhunters) links to.

If you're a physicist, you're interested in all that dark matter in the universe. If you're an amateur astronomer, or a space traveler, you're interested in the stars and planets that might hold some life.

To me, the chief point is not to confuse the two. Don't perform a na´ve quantitative analysis of YouTube and think you've actually cracked it. And don't think because you've discerned in a single YouTube mashup the future of entertainment that everything is going to look like what you've described. In short, prepare to be surprised.

That's exactly right. Not saying we don't need human-scale exploring; that's what great blogs are for! It's just that we shouldn't confuse that w/ a real understanding of the systems at web-scale. And YouTube, more than any other site, seems to attract this kind of judgment. "Oh, it's all cat videos! I've seen 'em."

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