The Cultural Currency of YouTube

There are different ways to think about YouTube.

No doubt employers see it as a menace against productivity, whose Siren-like beguilements carry their employees off to the harsh rocks of distraction. Teenagers deem the site a free portal to the latest music and Annoying Orange episodes, while to the more practically minded it is a wealth of instructional videos that cover everything from wiring a plug to building a home made spacecraft.

No kidding. Look it up.

From a novelty time-waster a few years ago the site has moved very much into the mainstream, with over four billion hours of content watched on the site each month. Four billion! That’s an impressive amount of amusing cat videos and Korean men riding invisible horses. In fact each minute of the day 72 hours of video are uploaded to the servers at YouTube, which will probably result in a new form of quantum maths being invented just to explain this quirk in the fabric of the time/space continuum.

The one thing that stands out to me among the multitude of shaky camera work, dubious presenting skills, and always heart-warming comment sections, is that people, on the whole, still just want to tell each other stories. Of course there will be those that like the idea of a certain level of internet fame, and even fewer still that achieve that great online dream of actually being paid for their work, but generally I think people want to share their experiences, thoughts, and in some cases ambitions, with anyone who will sit and listen.

Youtube has become the tribal campfire around which we tell our tales and listen in wonder to those of others.

We’ve seen instances where these stories are horrific, such as the Arab Spring footage that brought to the worlds’s attention the plight of Tunisians and Egyptians who were struggling against repressive governments. We’ve looked on in bewilderment as celebrities like Charlie Sheen have self destructed in a very public way (even with Tiger Blood coursing through his veins). But more often we have roared with laughter at sneezing pandas, cats playing pattycake, or people falling over while attempting some impressive feat of derring-do.

The site has also been the epicentre of memes that have spread into the wider culture, such as this summer’s Gangnam Style hysteria (which of course was damn good fun) and the current flash-mob craze that is Harlem Shake. Even 1980s flame haired pop minstrel Rick Astley saw his career briefly revived in the form of the ‘Rick Roll’, in which unsuspecting users would click on links to various interesting things only to find themselves redirected to a YouTube hosted video of Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. Inspired madness that only the internet could devise.

Those seeking wisdom can also mine the vast caverns of knowledge to extract the thought-ore they need. The Khan Academy alone has over 3,000 videos uploaded that can teach you advanced mathematics, the intricacies of high finance, or even a potted history of Vitamin C.

In essence…all life is here, and it’s available for free to anyone.


Interestingly in the last couple of years I’ve noticed an increasing trend that subtly alters the once distant way in which we interact with the site. Traditionally must-see clips would appear on the timelines of Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media of choice. We would click away then comment afterwards – social interaction completed. But with that advent of iPads, Smartphones, and Smart TVs, it seems that we’re beginning to share our favourite clips in a far more physical fashion – by actually sitting next to one another. On several occasions recently when people have come around to visit our home, the conversation would arise of a YouTube video someone has seen that either amused or challenged them in some way. From there it would only a short step to the ‘have you seen this one?’ question, and soon the evening morphs into a game of pass the controller as we frantically rush to find clips. It’s a particularly interesting game to play with people from other countries, who will usually bring with them links you’ve never come across before. Of course in the interests of international relations these cultural ambassadors then return home with new ones from your own personal archive.

In many ways it’s a modern equivalent of looking at someone’s CD or DVD collection, although this time you get to bring yours along too.

There’s actually no way to keep up with the incredible amount of content that goes live on the site every minute, and of course there’s a lot of chaff to sort through before you reach any wheat. With a few friends along for the ride though, we can all help each other find the good stuff, and maybe have a few laughs along the way.

Now, if we can just devise a way to toast marshmallows at the same time…

What’s your favourite YouTube clip? Post a link in the comments below and help us all find some fuel for our campfire.

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