YouTube and the Mainstream Media
YouTube clearly represents a disruption to existing media business models and is emerging as a new site of media power. It has received significant press attention, and is now part, however begrudgingly accepted, of the mainstream media landscape, but it is also regularly used as a vehicle for rehearsing public debates about new media and the Internet as a disruptive force on business and society, particularly with regard to young people. The assumptions underlying these representations of YouTube deserve a closer look.
In engaging with these debates, this chapter draws on a thematic analysis of mainstream media coverage of YouTube throughout 2006 and 2007. What emerges is a set of issues that, while 'newsworthy' in the traditional sense, have more to do with the news agenda of mainstream media than with the way YouTube works. It tends to be framed as either as a lawless repository for a flood of amateur content, or (in Business sections particularly) as a big player in the new economy. These definitional frames result in a steady but repetitive stream of news stories clustering around some familiar themes: youth, celebrity, and morality on the one hand; copyright law and media business on the other.
These debates, however familiar, contribute to shaping our understanding of what YouTube is and what matters about it: media discourses - whether celebratory, condemnatory, or somewhere in between - cannot help but both reflect and shape the meaning of new media forms as they evolve. Media 'framing' (De Vreese, 2005) and reality create each other, forming a dynamic feedback loop, so that the mainstream or incumbent media's struggles to comprehend and make sense of the meanings and implications of YouTube not only reflect public concerns, but also help to produce them. The repetitive framing of YouTube as an amateur 'free-for-all' rather than a place for community or artistic experimentation, for instance, situates it as a space where the public or the masses are rising up from the bottom, so that the matters of concern around it have to do with lawlessness, the crisis of expertise, and the collapse of cultural value. Similarly, mainstream media discourses about YouTube have the power to define the issues that may later be realized in policy, in law, and even in material form, so concern about 'piracy' or 'cyberbullying' can give the impression that regulatory interventions are required - like Digital Rights Management (DRM) to fight piracy, or blocking YouTube on school computers to fight cyberbullying. Our aim here is not simply to point out that mainstream media discourses about new media are wrong, but to work through them and provide some alternative perspectives that can be used in public debates or in practice.
One of the most striking things about mainstream reporting of YouTube is the degree to which these matters of concern conflict with one another. For example, on New Year's Eve 2007, Australian current affairs programs Today Tonight and A Current Affair both broadcast stories about the most popular YouTube clips of 2007, describing the website as both a repository for 'amazing, embarrassing, and sometimes downright dangerous moments' around the world, and a launching platform for 'many new stars' ('YouTube's Most Watched,' 2007; 'Best YouTube Videos,' 2007). YouTube as good object is a site of wacky, weird, and wonderful user-generated content. Within only a few weeks, however, the same programs returned to business-as-usual stories about cyberbullying on YouTube, framing it as a very bad object indeed - an under-regulated site of lawless, unethical and pathological behavior centered around youth as a risk category. But as YouTube has evolved, so has its role in the cycles of news reporting: from being described as one among a plethora of novel new media applications and a potential site of ordinary self