YouTube, a global archive of daily life, both humble and transcendent. -NPR, Fresh Air

by | Apr 17, 2015 | Digital, Science, Research + Technology


On YouTube, A Global Archive of Daily Life, Both Humble and Transcendent.

You can listen to the link here for the YouTube audio clips:

This piece was written by Alexis Madrigal and was showcased on NPR’s Fresh Air this morning. I was lucky enough to hear it on the way back from taking my son to school. Alexis Madrigal is a visiting scholar at Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society and is the Silicon Valley bureau chief for the Fusion Cable and Digital Network. I was touched by his perspective on YouTube:  It’s become a stunning record of our current civilization, global in scope but intimate and personal at the same time. Such a fascinating look at something our generation takes for granted every day.

Here are his words:

For me, it all started with seagulls. Seagulls were the first animal that my little son began to identify in the world around him. And being over-excitable new parents, we fed his interests with delight. We showed him seagulls at the Berkeley Pier and at San Francisco’s Embarcadero – dirty seagulls, majestic seagulls and seagulls that liked french fries. But then, that rare California rain came, and we were cooped up inside. He kept demanding to see seagulls, but we couldn’t go out to find them.

In an act of desperation, I pulled up YouTube and started searching for videos of these birds. There were thousands of results from all over the world. People from Tuscany to Tokyo to Texas all took the time to capture a few semi-precious moments with these ubiquitous birds and post them to YouTube. This felt like a new type of tourism. We could trot the globe via search term, and we found ourselves seeing not just seagulls but the world’s beaches and bridges and ferries and forgotten harbors.

After a few months though, seagulls lost their hold on our son’s attention. Whales took center stage. And where seagull videos are humble but satisfying, whale watching videos are like watching a religious conversion. You can huff the fumes of transcendence. The reactions that people have to seeing a whale nearby are astonishingly similar. The person holding the camera shakily tends to scream and then exclaim, oh, my or, oh, my gosh or, oh, my God. Sometimes, they laugh hysterically, as if only peals of laughter can reset their neural circuitry to normal functioning. Just listen.


YouTube turned 10 years old earlier this year. Over that decade, the Google-owned service has become the dominant video platform on the web outside of Facebook. And increasingly, the most popular videos posted on the service are made by famous musicians, professional video producers, or people who are trying to become famous musicians or professionals. Early predictions for video sharing focused on everyday people sharing home videos and a crowd of amateur teen creators making clips for fun.

But YouTube increasingly looks like TV, a select handful of well-paid people making stuff for the masses. In this, YouTube tracks with most of the rest of the Internet. What was once a wild and largely amateur place has become professionalized. There is money to be made on YouTube now for traditional or self-made stars who can command attention. Companies large and small now pay more than a billion dollars per year to advertise on YouTube, according to the research firm eMarketer. The decentralizing force of cheap content creation tools has been more than countered by the centralization of distribution in the hands of big media and technology companies.

As I write this, 14 of the 15 videos YouTube says are the most popular right now are made by professionals, not at-home amateurs. And let’s be honest; the pros are good. And their production budgets usually yield better video than the stuff made on smartphones. But that other YouTube, the common, the weird, the snapshots of daily life – they haven’t gone away, even if they have been eclipsed at the top of the rankings. And the people making videos of whales and seagulls and all the other corners of the platform are a salve for most of what ails the Internet.

No one posts shaky, low-resolution footage of dirty seagulls or themselves laughing hysterically during a whale encounter to become a social media star. These videos are veritable verity. And step back, too, and look at what YouTube has become as an archive. From the humblest video of a seagull pecking Doritos to the most awe-inspiring encounters with nature’s most stunning creatures, so much video gets uploaded to YouTube. Each day, YouTube estimates that 432,000 hours of video gets posted on the service. It’s become a stunning record of our current civilization, global in scope but intimate and personal at the same time. Future historians could have unprecedented access to the daily lives of all kinds of people. Of course, that’s if Google commits to preserving this incredible record; and that’s a big if. There are reasons to believe that such a massive digital archive will not be profitable for Google to save for future generations.

As my friend Dan Cohen, head of the Digital Public Library of America, likes to say, Google is not in the forever business. But we can hope they’ll save the whales. And in the meantime, we can listen to the ecstasy of the whale watchers.