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Understanding YouTube through the Power, Pleasure & Patterns Narratives

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Introduction

The three narratives that Joshua Meyrowitz illustrates each answer the question “What do media do to us or for us?” (Meyrowitz 2008 p644). Each answer is generally true, but each is still lacking information found in the other two narratives. To gain a full understanding of YouTube one must look at a number of different viewpoints. The three narratives have remained separate in media studies. Along with Meyrowitz, only a few other theorists have linked the narratives together, such as Katz, Grosswiler and Carey (Meyrowitz 2008 pp643- 644).

In this essay I will examine how each narrative pertains to YouTube by exploring the website’s features along with historical events that apply to each narrative. I will conclude by offering a synthesis of the three competing narratives as they relate to the comprehension of YouTube.

YouTube

YouTube was launched in June 2005 by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim. The original aim of the website was to easily allow users to upload and share their videos and watch videos made by others. In October 2006, Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion (Burgess & Green 2009 p1). Since then, YouTube has only grown in popularity due to the implementation of new features and the addition of professionally produced content alongside user-created content.

Power Narrative

What is the Power Narrative?

The power narrative, also known as ‘critical and cultural studies’ is based on conflict for resources. Throughout history there has been constant conflict between people. Domination is desired in order to control the mass population. The ruling power uses a system of punishments and rewards to subjugate the weak. People of a lower status accept their position as lesser in society because ongoing rebellion efforts are difficult to win against such a strong ruling force. The system relies on inequality and unequal benefit. The rulers use the masses to extract resources and these resources are used to gain even more control of the society (Meyrowitz 2008 pp645-646).

The Power Narrative in Media Studies

When examining the power narrative in media studies, media institutions are viewed as “weapons in and sites of conflict” (Meyrowitz 2008 p646). Media sites are battling for the attention of the largest audience so they may imprint their ideals on them and gain monetarily from them. Meyrowitz (2008) credits Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels with the foundation work on the power narrative with their creation of the base-superstructure model. Those who control the means of material resource production also control all other aspects of society with their ideology (Meyrowitz 2008 p646). High budget media institutions that have a wide reach inscribe their ideology on audiences. The ownership and financing structure of media institutions determines the content produced. The sites will be unlikely to promote messages that are in conflict with their money-making agenda (Meyrowitz 2008 p647). Some theorists believe that audiences can interpret hidden messages in media by “decoding” them (Meyrowitz 2008 p647) and withstand oppressive powers of the media institutions. Media companies are fighting for our attention in an ever increasingly globalized media market (Meyrowitz 2008 p647). All in all, the power narrative attempts to raise awareness about the power of the media, enhance our lives and develop an equal world (Meyrowitz 2008 p648).

Our Data

YouTube is first and foremost a business and needs to make money to survive. The main way they make money is through advertising. Even though the site may appear that its main aim is to build communities and give a platform to anyone who wants it (Burgess & Green 2009 p76). Google bought YouTube to take advantage of the people who use YouTube and to increase content on their search engine results (Van Dijck 2009 p42). YouTube is classed as an independent subsidiary of Google, allowing it to operate as its own business but Google takes ownership of all user data and information. This personal information and digital behaviour can be exploited by YouTube for their benefit (Van Dijck 2009 p48). Using a complex algorithm, YouTube points viewers towards particular videos that it believes the viewer will enjoy in order to maximise time spent on the website. Users contribute to this algorithm with their viewing history, preferences, ratings and comments. The users make content and decide what they and other users will watch (Van Dijck 2009 p45).

Advertising

The data that users generate about themselves is used for advertising purposes. In the age of the internet, niche marketing has become much easier. Through YouTube, companies can target people with specific interests to serve ads to (Van Dijck 2009 p47). Questions of labour also arise when examining YouTube’s almighty control. Users make content and YouTube profits by placing ads on the videos. Originally, YouTube did not pay users for content. Google introduced paid uploads which allowed users to watch certain videos by paying a fee. The current payment system sees video creators paid a percentage of the advertising revenue made from their video. YouTube also decides how and where to display the content determining how many views it will get, thereby determining how much the creator will get paid (Van Dijck 2009 p52). Throughout the evolution of YouTube, a power shift has taken place from users to the owners. In the early years of YouTube, users moderated content on the site by flagging inappropriate comments and videos. Yet now YouTube pays their employees to moderate the website. Work previously done for free is now getting paid (Van Dijck 2009 p52). And issues of moderation arise because YouTube themselves hired the moderators, so they have the power to remove any content that portrays YouTube negatively.

YouTube is Being Controlled

Disputes on the website reveal the truth about power relations between the public and the company. In 2007 Oprah Winfrey launched her YouTube channel. At the time videos on YouTube’s home page were manually selected to showcase the best the site had to offer. Most of the home page videos were changed to positive videos about Oprah in the days surrounding the launch of her channel. This sparked mass controversy across the platform. The invasion of so called “big media” was ruining YouTube according to the users. If large media corporations had the power to control YouTube, who else had enough influence? (Burgess & Green 2009 pp91-92). It is difficult to get a true sense of how YouTube or any other powerful media institution is run because most studies and research into media theory are funded by the owners of these institutions. They will find out what they want to find out (Meyrowitz 1985 p20).

The scariest thing about these power issues is that users willingly agree to all of these rules. All users that create a Google account to use YouTube must agree to the ‘Terms of Use.’ We are clearly being told what will happen to our data, but we willingly choose to ignore it. In critical and cultural studies, a lot of focus is placed on how the ownership and structure of an organisation affects the content they produce. In the case of YouTube this does not really apply as users generate the content. Few theorists have examined the differences in the control of different types of media and the crucial question of how media can shape politics? (Meyrowitz 1985 p15).

Pleasure Narrative

What is the Pleasure Narrative?

The pleasure narrative, also known as ‘uses and gratifications,’ views humans as active users of resources. We utilize resources to fulfil our wants and needs. People work on their own or together, if needed, and pick the best option to satisfy their desires (Meyrowitz 2008 p649).

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The Pleasure Narrative in Media Studies

In media studies, audiences are seen as carefully selecting what media to consume. And if there is no media option available to meet their needs then they will look elsewhere. Early work on the pleasure narrative built on Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs.’ Many theorists developed on Maslow’s findings including Herta Herzog (1941), Elihu Katz (1959, 1974) and Michael Gurevitch (1973, 1974). They categorised different types of wants and needs that people had, discovered people’s different gratifications from the same media and found unexpected consequences that media have on people (Meyrowitz 2008 p650). Media institutions are still businesses and so they are forced to compete with each other to please as many people as possible in order to survive (Meyrowitz 2008 p651). Meyrowitz expertly describes the media as “servants of the public” because they must adapt to social changes to appease the public.

Viewers Getting Pleasure

YouTube provides high levels of pleasure to its viewers. Viewers can fulfil their particular desires with videos on almost every subtopic imaginable (Burgess & Green 2009 p7). In addition to just watching videos to be satisfied, users can interact with others who share the same interests in video content. Traditionally a community refers to a real-life group of people. Whereas an online community has a shared preference for popular culture and interact digitally. The term “taste community” can be applied to online communities. This term is commonly used to refer to a group targeted with advertising as they share the same tastes and as I mentioned in the power narrative above, these users will likely see similar ads before videos. Some larger YouTubers hold physical meetups with their fans to physically see their community. It can be a chance for members of the community to interact in real life (Van Dijck 2009 p45).

Creators Getting Pleasure

Just like in the power narrative, questions of labour relations also arise in the pleasure narrative. Video creators willingly contribute their videos onto YouTube meaning that making videos is considered play, not work. And while creators may enjoy the video making process, high quality content can cost a lot which may not be made back in advertising revenue (Van Dijck 2009 p51). Studies in ‘uses and gratifications’ focus on the message being transmitted. Why do people choose to communicate specific messages and what are the functions of those messages? (Meyrowitz 1985 p14). Internal arguments between YouTubers, often coined “YouTube drama,” are often staged in order to benefit both parties involved in the argument. Viewers will want to hear all sides of the story and will watch videos from anyone involved in the dispute. The creators view count will increase as will their income from advertising revenue (Burgess & Green 2009 p97). Even creators not directly involved in the drama can benefit. Some YouTubers’ channels are entirely based on making videos reporting controversies on the site to gain views from outsiders wanting to understand the current situation (Burgess & Green 2009 p94). Other channels capitalise on popular and current trends online to earn views and money. They produce videos quickly to gain as much exposure before the trend dies off. The videos may not be of the highest quality but as long as viewers click on the video, the creator will be earning money.

The main aim for video creators on YouTube is to get more views and subscribers which will result in more income. Viewers, on the other hand, want to watch videos that will accomplish a certain want or need, be it to laugh, to relax or to learn.

Patterns Narrative

What is the Patterns Narrative?

The patterns narrative can also be called medium theory. This narrative is based on the perspective that human life is shaped by the surrounding environment, both natural and man-made. This environment creates possibilities but also sets limits. Some actions are encouraged by our surroundings while other actions are discouraged. These patterns become habitual in our lives (Meyrowitz 2008 p651).

The Patterns Narrative in Media Studies

Mediums of communication are also a part of our environment therefore enabling some behaviours while deterring other behaviours (Meyrowitz 2008 p652). Marshall McLuhan (1964) asserted that complex thought processes that developed from print media were being overtaken cause-and-effect thinking due to electronic media. Different ways of thinking came from different media forms (Meyrowitz 2008 p654). Media can be difficult for certain people to access depending on the characteristics of the medium when compared to the same content in other media (Meyrowitz 2008 p653). Online news may be easier for an 18-year-old to access than an 80-year-old because the internet developed while the 18- year-old was impressionable and learning. Medium theory also studies the means in which media interacts with each other. The same content communicated in different media forms can have different influences on people (Meyrowitz 2008 p654). A light technological determinism view is taken of the patterns narrative. Technology makes new things possible, but humans ultimately decide how to use the technology (Meyrowitz 2008 pp654-655).

Professional Content vs Amateur Content

Increased access to cheap technologies e.g. smartphones, and the expanding market of user generated content sites e.g. YouTube, has led to more users participating in media rather than just consuming it (Van Dijck 2009 pp43-44). YouTube provides 15 general categories for users to classify their videos under e.g. music, sports, gaming. This broad list allows a wide range of videos to be made and does not force creators into a corner to make what YouTube wants (Burgess & Green 2009 p8). In 2007 when Oprah joined YouTube, although most people were angered about the invasion of “big media,” some users praised the move as it would attract new users to the site who would then stay and enjoy user created content (Burgess & Green 2009 p94). The combination of professionally produced content and user created videos keeps viewers on the site. YouTube is unique in that it blends professional and amateur content together (Van Dijck 2009 p51).

New Technologies

The introduction of new technologies does not make older technologies obsolete, but it does decrease the frequency of use of them (Meyrowitz 1985 p19). When Google bought YouTube it already operated a video hosting platform called ‘Google Video.’ Yet because of a bigger diversity of content, higher quality videos and a larger network of supported devices, YouTube wildly surpassed Google Video in popularity. People switched to YouTube because of a better user experience. And presently YouTube’s huge size and almost monopoly of online video jeopardizes other online video sites (Burgess & Green 2009 p75).

The evolution of YouTube and introduction of new features has brought more people to the website. YouTube provides a medium for creative content production and a medium for the consumption of an assortment of eclectic videos.

Conclusion

Before these narratives were established, the traditional school of thought was the stimulus response model. This type of study was abandoned as it focused too much on the message unlike the narratives which look at how the message is delivered (Meyrowitz 1985 pp13-14). Each narrative is unfinished and requires elements from the others to tell the whole story. While they also contradict one another at the same time. It can be helpful to observe each narrative as if it were lens. It reveals some things while obscuring others. Some media situations clearly lead to one narrative, but most media interactions lend themselves to use all three narratives (Meyrowitz 2008 p659).

Synthesis

Judging by my word count alone, the power narrative is dominant when it comes to dissecting YouTube. YouTube needs to keep users on the website for as long as possible so they can gather more and more data from them and show them ads. Viewers stay on the website because they believe that their needs are being satisfied for free. Professional video producers rope in new viewers and introduce them to amateur content. Creators stay on the website due to the possibility of getting more subscribers and earning more money. All of these elements maintain YouTube’s spot as the primary player in online video.

Reference List

  1. Burgess, J and Green, J (2009) YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture Cambridge Polity Press
  2. Meyrowitz, J (1985) No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour New York Oxford University Press
  3. Meyrowitz, J (2008) ‘Power, Pleasure, Patterns: Intersecting Narratives of Media Influence’ in Journal of Communication Vol. 58 Issue 4 pp641-661
  4. Van Dijck, J (2009) ‘Users like you? Theorizing agency in user-generated content’ in Media, Culture & Society Vol. 31 Issue 1 pp41-58

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Understanding YouTube through the Power, Pleasure & Patterns Narratives. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-youtube-through-the-power-pleasure-patterns-narratives/
“Understanding YouTube through the Power, Pleasure & Patterns Narratives.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-youtube-through-the-power-pleasure-patterns-narratives/
Understanding YouTube through the Power, Pleasure & Patterns Narratives. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-youtube-through-the-power-pleasure-patterns-narratives/> [Accessed 2 Dec. 2022].
Understanding YouTube through the Power, Pleasure & Patterns Narratives [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2022 Dec 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-youtube-through-the-power-pleasure-patterns-narratives/
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