Interview by Jan English-Lueck
Jan English-Lueck: You have been writing about YouTubers, on and off screen, for over a decade. How is this book continuing themes you have been developing for a long time and what is a departure from your previous work?
Patricia G. Lange: My work has oriented around empathetically exploring nuances of mediated interaction to understand the allure of interacting in digital spaces. Throughout my career, criticism of mediated interaction has persistently been very harsh—from scholars and the public. Yet, mediation is part of the human experience. My current book similarly tries to understand why vlogging (video blogging) and sharing the self through media was so important to YouTubers interested in sociality. My past and current research challenges the notion that mediated interaction is simply parasitic to and less meaningful than in person interaction. The sociality YouTubers experienced was emotional and real—both online and off. Even going back to my dissertation, I have been concerned with problematic talk and issues of online access. Back then troublesome participants were called “flamers” and today YouTubers complain about “haters”—groups that exhibit differences but also similarly produce chilling effects to participation. I have explored how digital spaces facilitate or challenge democratized participation. This book continues this passion by analyzing experiences of YouTubers who originally saw the site as a place of tremendous possibility for offering a potentially democratized space for self-expression and interaction. Thanks for Watching traces the initial excitement and eventual ensuing complications that an interconnected group of people experienced. It explores difficulties such as haters, competition brought on by monetization, and changes in content. It also analyzes technical complications such as algorithmic rankings that privilege certain types of content over quiet, social videos. The book concludes by providing advice and recommendations when conducting ethnography in digital spaces. It also provides information about what might be changed to renew a corner of YouTube for sociality, or perhaps to more ambitiously create new video sharing sites that fundamentally support interaction.
In the past, my work has centrally revolved around issues of analyzing technical identities, and how “geeks” socialize to learn and project an aura of being an expert. Thanks for Watching departs from this research program. Identity work has been important for many online studies, but other interesting rubrics exist. Inspired by Lefebvre, my book uses the lens of “rhythm analysis” to explore how temporalities, rhythms, and interactions over time shape video-mediated sociality. For example, an arrhythmia is an irregular rhythm, one which often indicates a problem. YouTubers at times experienced arrhythmias between honoring their creative pace of production and satisfying the relentless demands of audiences and algorithms. At times creators could not keep up with such requests and took a break. Disruptions in posting video content might be observed by viewers who became concerned when video making output became irregular. It could feel as if a collective was in tune with a video maker and was watching out for them. Focusing attention on such patterns leads to significant analytical insight, especially in terms of seeing such deep and widespread connections as illustrative of our increasingly “posthuman” condition. I remain circumspect about usage of this term, which has the unfortunate connotation of asserting we are no longer human. Yet, we are far from being robots or files containing a downloaded consciousness. Nevertheless, I chose to explore this rubric given that some of its characteristics can quite clearly be observed on YouTube. Collectives of interconnected people, artifacts, commercial interests, and technical operations are deeply influencing how people express the “self” in both communal and troublesome ways.
Jan English-Lueck: You observed an actual drum circle at a YouTube meet-up in Toronto. You then observed it is an appropriate metaphor for video sharing. Could you tell us more about how that metaphor illuminates participatory cultures?
Patricia G. Lange: A drum circle involves people sitting on the floor in a circle literally banging on drums or using percussion instruments in a free-form, improvised way. A facilitator might kick things off by beating out a simple rhythm that others initially follow. As the group dives deeper into the exercise, they creatively and collectively invent new rhythmic patterns with each other. Notably, everyone is equally visible to everyone else, and the exercise requires closely focusing on other people as each participant makes their own music. Focusing on just yourself becomes counter-productive. The drum circle I observed at the Toronto gathering took place at a science center, in which such participatory activities are common. Drum circles are meant to have healing properties that help people bond, feel their spirits uplifted, and cooperatively create something that transcends each individual.
The idea of the drum circle—including its mutual visibility and transcendence—serves as an apt metaphor for creating robust participatory cultures in which people make and share media. In strong participatory cultures, everyone feels as though they can contribute in their own way, and their contribution is respected by other members. In a drum circle, people bring different levels of creative ability to the group, but there are no hierarchies of doing or learning. Similarly, YouTubers in the study enjoyed watching all kinds of videos from people at different stages of their video-making journey. Successful participants might give “shout outs” to newcomers, and people interested in sociality often watched each other’s videos. Visibility had a more democratized feel, as opposed to hierarchies of viewing based on commercial success or algorithmic promotion. Of course, the system was never perfectly successful and hierarchies of viewership did appear. Yet many video makers believed in a more democratized ideal for video sharing—one that more closely resembled the dynamics of the drum circle that I observed. The corner of YouTube that seemed particularly interesting to socially-oriented participants enabled people to create videos together and to feel that they were participating in a video sharing project that was larger than any single video or creator. The participatory aura that was produced often led YouTubers to feel as though they were creating something important and uplifting by sharing their messages collectively.
Jan English-Lueck: One of the key ideas you introduce is that YouTubers produce “chronotopic chains of experience.” Tell us more about that idea, and how your thinking about the ways YouTubers produce content changed once you realized that their activities intertwine on and offline activities.
Patricia G. Lange: The word chronotope literally means “time-space,” and has turned out to be a very influential concept for understanding social experience. Originally applied to literary analysis, the concept symbolically illustrates important cultural values and meanings. A classic example is the idea of the “threshold.” This word collapses the moment of being in between both the inside and outside of a house (place), as well as moving between the past moment of standing outside the house and the future of eventually entering the house (time). Thresholds index momentous and often life-changing decisions and experiences. In the YouTube case, participants used chronotopic terminology to create a shared sense of history and sociality that held emotional meaning. The first large-scale meet up was called “777” because it took place on July 7, 2007. YouTubers in this social group deeply associate “777” with its location, which was New York City. Thus the name chronotopically encapsulates both a time and a place in a single concept in a way that holds meaning for early-adopter YouTubers who saw gatherings as important milestones in their collective media journey.
Thanks for Watching expands on this idea to show how YouTubers’ practices formed chronotopic chains of interaction over time in a way that not only co-constructed interpersonal meaning but also showed the importance of physical place in shaping mediated interaction. They revealed YouTubers’ intense desire to keep their sociality moving forward while simultaneously retaining fond memories of bonding in the past. Subsequent meet-ups often used playful numerical and place-based names to connote YouTube sociality. For example, one large-scale meet-up occurred in Toronto, Canada on August 8, 2008, aka “888” about a year after “777.” Another appeared a year after “888” in Santa Monica on August 8, 2009. These chronotopic chains were instantiated in videos and created a sense of collective history. Attending these events marked significant time-places for YouTubers to gather, experience shared happenings together, and solidify their friendships. YouTubers also self-consciously anchored their sociality to specific events over time to create warm and interpersonal relations that were bound up with their conception of what YouTube could achieve. For example, at one meet-up I observed two friends re-enact a selfie they had taken of each other the prior year in the same location. Their action created a chronotopic chain of sociality that recalled the past, helped them enjoy the present, and created media for their future enjoyment on YouTube. Their action solidified their continuing commitment to their friendship through media and through YouTube.
Studying chronotopic chains of sociality that weaved online and off revealed that the “home mode” of video making continues today even among advanced amateurs, some of whom were serious about their craft. The concept of the home mode emerged from research among vernacular media makers; advanced amateurs and media enthusiasts were not considered in early studies in order to shed much needed light on a neglected area of scholarship. Home mode media such as photographs and home movies focus on personal themes and depict events (such as birthday parties and holiday gatherings) that are meaningful to small social groups such as families. Observing YouTubers at meet-ups showed that their media included home mode footage, but in a way that has expanded beyond families to include communities of interest. Video footage of meet-ups shows people interviewing each other or just standing around marking the event, which felt momentous to participants who were excited to meet with other YouTubers in person. YouTubers also expressed enthusiasm to see other people’s footage, even though they had recorded very similar images. It felt meaningful to them to see the event from another participant’s point of view—a desire which challenges narcissistic assumptions that all media makers only care about being seen. Studies of video making often work hard to bracket types of media and categorize media makers in pre-sorted “buckets” of amateurs, advanced amateurs, and professionals, when the reality is that these categories are not hard and fast. Many of the advanced amateurs profiled in the book were both interested in improving their craft and recording and sharing home mode, personal footage that reinforced sociality.
Jan English-Lueck: One of the most contested areas of digital ethnography is the way anthropologists and the media makers themselves talk about community. You explore the nuances of community in your chapter, “What defines a community?” In hindsight, what are the important anthropological notions of community that are useful in studying the digital space? What are the pitfalls researchers should consider?
Patricia G. Lange: Community is a slippery concept to pin down using universal definitions. Among scholars and participants the term connotes a sense of mutual identification in a particular group that displays warmth, loyalty, shared interests, distinctiveness from other collectives, and a desire to help others within the group. Maintaining community requires work and often exhibits patterns of reciprocity and mutual obligation. Still, the word community exhibits wide-ranging connotations and differs substantially cross-culturally and in accordance with technical affordances that facilitate it. Whereas anthropological literature in past eras privileged co-location as key, subsequent rubrics identified “imagined” and “virtual” communities that exhibit intense feelings and interactions between dispersed people connecting through media. Yet such terms have been criticized for a perceived over-emphasis on “mental concepts” of community. Scholars urge paying more attention to how participants experience things and events together, which centrally help create and maintain a sense of community. This was certainly the case with YouTubers who gathered in person and co-experienced the site’s rapidly changing atmosphere. Ethnographers should be attuned to the diverse ways in which community plays out in digital spaces, including the characteristics that differ across groups. Researchers should work to identify the specific factors that lead to the moment when participants perceive that their group has achieved a sense of cohesive community. Are the contributing factors social, cultural, technical, or some combination?
A major pitfall in researching community is to adhere to a preconceived definition and to measure the sociality that is being observed in digital spaces against this rigid conceptualization. In Thanks for Watching, I argue that it is less valuable to pinpoint a definition and instead consider the term as a placeholder for analyzing a larger process and set of sentiments. The processual view of community requires identifying the steps that occur over time that facilitate feelings of mutual identification. The process often starts with intensification of sociality and builds to a peak in which people use the term to delineate a group that emotionally connects in meaningful ways. Interviewees and participants in digital spaces often themselves have a very rigid definition for the term that varies considerably across individuals, even within the same social group—which makes researching the process even more challenging. Commenters to my vlogs were sometimes horrified to hear that YouTubers felt closer to other participants than to their “own neighbors.” Yet this is the reality of contemporary community that many people have been living with for quite some time. As researchers it is important to understand the full landscape of what constitutes community across digital spaces and individual participants.
When I first began researching YouTube sociality, I was not particularly interested in determining whether YouTube was or could facilitate the emergence of a “true” community, because I already knew the answer. Of course it could! Scholarly work conducted for the past thirty years definitively proves that under the right circumstances, deeply meaningful communities may be launched through participation in dispersed media. At the same time, it was evident that interviewees wished to talk about it at length. I learned over the course of the research that it was through these interactive discourses that their community was being constructed. It is important for ethnographers and media anthropologists to go with the flow and try to orient to what participants feel is important, even if participants’ passions are not originally in sync with what one sets out to examine. By listening carefully to YouTubers and re-calibrating my agenda, I achieved valuable analytical insight. I learned that community is more of a process than a social science term. Discussions about what constitutes community will inevitably continue across digital spaces for the foreseeable future, in part because its circumstances of creation differ between contexts. The question is not whether media facilitates community formation, because that mystery is solved. The more interesting questions are: How do communities emerge and dissipate? What rhythms are influencing their creation? Why do mediated communities change over time? Rather than dismiss the term because of its wide definitional variation, it is important to understand how community-centric formations appear and disappear in patterned ways. My recommendation is for researchers to orient to the specific criteria that seem to encourage or challenge community formation in specific media contexts. A more productive future tactic would be to create a collective scholarly conversation that compares criteria and processes of community dynamics across time and space.