YouTubing Ourselves to Death

You have the power to change history. But first, check out this really cute baby video!

By Ben Shingler 30 Sep 2009 |

Ben Shingler writes regularly about online media for The Tyee.

The latest online video viewing numbers were released this week, and the results are staggering. A whopping 25 billion online videos were watched during the month of August -- in the United States alone. That's up from the 12.7 billion viewed nine months earlier, in November 2008.

Nearly 82 per cent of all U.S. Internet users watched videos online in August, with an average viewing time amounting to 9.7 hours, according to industry tracker comScore. The duration of a typical video was slightly less than four minutes.

And Canada isn't much different. Another report by comScore from earlier this year, which called the country a "global leader in online video watching," showed that in February, 21 million Canadians viewed more than 3.1 billion videos online. The average Canadian online video viewer spent 10 hours viewing videos in February, up 53 per cent from their average viewing time the same month a year earlier.

"Canada's high broadband penetration and tech savvy Internet users make it an optimal environment for online video to flourish," Bryan Segal, vice president of sales, comScore Canada, said in a statement at the time. "The combined forces of reach, high engagement and 'sight, sound and motion' make online video a particularly attractive brand-building vehicle for online advertisers."

What about social change?

But it's not just advertisers that are excited about the possibilities. Online video has for years been trumpeted as a key tool for citizen journalism and the democratization of media. But as view counts continue to climb skywards, it's unclear whether online video is actually doing us any good.

In any given week, the most-watched videos are nearly always void of meaningful information. The big hit this week is a diaper-clad baby dancing to a Beyoncé video (see above).

It's been viewed more than 6 million times.

Even the political clips are, for the most part, limited to embarrassing slip-ups and inflammatory sound bites that dilute the discussion rather than inform it.

This week, footage of grade school kids reciting a poem that praises Obama -- accompanied by horror music -- has been one of the biggest hits.

So, too, is a video of right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck refusing to define the term "white culture" in an interview with Katie Couric. (Beck previously stated that President Obama has a deep-seated hatred for the white culture).

Of course, there are, here and there, instances of interesting video reportage that accomplishes what advocates always hoped it would: present us information that wouldn't otherwise be available. A roughly put-together documentary about a tea party earlier this month in Washington D.C. achieves this aim, turning the spotlight onto an angry, misinformed public upset with President Obama. And it's been a big hit online. It's unfortunate that there aren't more of these kinds of videos, and they aren't more widely viewed.

In Canada, great potential but...

In Canada, despite its "high broadband penetration and tech savvy Internet users," there seems to be even less of an emphasis on political debate in online video. Rarely does such a video make the rounds on YouTube.

It's true that there is a tremendous opportunity in Canada, and not just for advertisers. Our elected representatives have an opportunity to make their case directly to voters online, to encourage citizen engagement. So far, our prime minister and opposition leader haven't done that very successfully.

But here's the thing. We have the power now to use online video for exposing truths that would otherwise go unseen. So, let's use it. If you know a good Canadian online video that does this, post it in the comments below.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Science + Tech

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