Washington— Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, set out to study the culture of YouTube users, and he ended up becoming a video star in the process. He and his students have been lovingly documenting how people are using their Web cams to express themselves, and his short videos about the new ways the Web is connecting people have been viewed millions of times.
But when Mr. Wesch gave a talk at the Library of Congress on Monday, one audience member essentially asked: So what? Why should anyone care about a subculture of homemade video makers, or the fact that some people watch amusing clips on the Internet instead of looking at TV? “I don’t understand how this is going to impact my life,” said the questioner, who said she’s only ever watched one YouTube video.
“It will impact politics — it will impact who gets elected this year,” said Mr. Wesch. “And I think it can be argued that Obama would not have taken the election without social media. Clinton with her machine would have just ran right over him.”
Throughout his talk he emphasized the human impacts of online social media, even when he was showing seemingly frivolous clips of teenagers dancing in front of their Web cams. “You can say that this is all hype, that this is just people dancing and having fun, but think about what they’re dancing in front of. They’re dancing in front of about a billion boxes in places all over the world that are networked together, and that are allowing us to connect in ways we’ve never connected before. … This is really a very important moment.”
Mr. Wesch’s prior anthropological work focused on a tribe in Papua New Guinea and how the introduction of written language and formal education impacted the culture, he said in an interview after his talk. He says he’s now trying to look for ways that video and other social media are causing cultural shifts in our own society.
He says that many video bloggers on YouTube, who record personal diaries or commentaries regularly and post them for the world to see, use the technology to explore their identities. Instead of going off on some solitary journey to “find themselves,” these YouTubers are trying different performances for an online audience and making changes based on feedback from the crowd. “Instead of finding self,” he said, “it’s creating self.”
Throughout his talk, Mr. Wesch showed examples from YouTube, including some of his own creations. You may have already seen his biggest hits — The Machine is Us/ing Us and A Vision of Students Today. For more on Mr. Wesch’s research on the anthropology of YouTube, see our video report in Wired Campus TV. —Jeffrey R. Young