Week 3: YouTube, Genre, and Vlogs as the Primordial Soup of Online Video

Riding off of last week’s broad topic of how libraries and YouTube compare, this week let’s talk (more) about genre. I touched on it at the end of last week’s first post within the context of how different genres of videos map onto different library offerings, but this is a topic that I think deserves a lot of attention, for two reasons.

Genre considerations for libraries

First, understanding YouTube’s genres should be a big help to folks performing reference services, since different genres of videos can fill different kinds of information needs from users of diverse backgrounds. Just like how not everyone who comes into a library looking for LGBT+ resources will want research on the topic, not everyone who goes onto YouTube looking for LGBT+ resources is going to want someone instructing them about queerness. Like I mentioned in last week’s post, a friendly, familiar face can go a long way toward selling someone on an idea or way of being. Second, understanding YouTube’s genres can help folks who might create content for their institutions, by showing what viewers expect from each genre. Once you understand how videos in each genre are made, you can also start to get an idea of:
  • What resources might be needed to make a video that conforms to it,
  • How much time a video of that genre might take to produce,
  • Which genres appeal to which groups of people, and other considerations.
To quote John Frowe, “the patterns of genre … are at once shaped by a type of situation and in turn shape the rhetorical actions that are performed in response to it.” (p. 15) A thing to keep in mind is that unlike in libraries, on YouTube genre is not an explicitly searchable field: there is no dropdown menu that lets you say, “I only want to see vlogs,” “show me top 10 lists,” or “give me home improvement tips” (with the partial exception of gaming and music, but that’s for sociotechnical reasons). This is not the worst though, because a fascinating thing about genre on YouTube is that videos and channels will often fall into more than one of them. A good way to find (or make findable) videos by genre is to ascribe to the genre’s norms in production and style: YouTube’s algorithm will eventually associate a given video with other videos in a similar style, and also use keywords in a video’s title (“how to _____,” “my vlog about ____,” “Let’s play ____”) to make that determination. So:

What does genre look like on YouTube?

That is why genre matters:
[i]t is central to human meaning-making and to the social struggle over meanings. No speaking or writing or any other symbolically organised action takes place other than through the shapings of generic codes, where ‘shaping’ means both ‘shaping by’ and ‘shaping of’: acts and structures work upon and modify each other. -John Frowe, Genre, p. 10
I don’t remember where exactly (most likely Dr. Luanne Freund, since she’s done a wealth of research on the topic), but I think I heard somewhere once that genre’s kind of like a shorthand that we use to know what to expect when we approach something: documents, forms, literature, etc… If we look at a newspaper, it is recognizably a newspaper, and so we know what to expect from it & how to navigate & interact with it. If I pick up something to read that someone’s classified as cyberpunk, then my brain will be primed to imagine the world a little bit darker, grungier, and more grounded in reality when I start reading. In turn, I worry a little less about worldbuilding and can focus more on the narrative. In short, our expectations are managed.  So it is with YouTube. When the platform first started, folks uploaded videos of themselves (or of cats), and other people watched them and interacted with them if they liked them. Depending on what was popular, others would emulate these formats in what I once argued (and others likely have, too) is a form of generationality, and over a couple of years discrete formats started popping up, normalizing, and becoming the object of researchers’ fancies.

Vlogs: Primordial Soup for the Soul

Perhaps the most iconic genre to emerge on YouTube is the vlog. The word calls to mind someone sitting in front of a camera, enthusiastically talking about something, probably in the comfort of their own home (or bedroom), in such a way that the viewer feels like they’re part of the conversation.
see, for example, these video thumbnails on the vlogbrothers channel, featuring john and hank green from between April 28 and July 2, 2008
Dr. Erich A. Werner explains why vlogs became so popular in his Ph.D. dissertation, “Rants, Reactions, and other Rhetorics: Genres of the YouTube Vlog.” His dissertation looks at three ‘sub-genres’ of vlogging (Confession, Reaction, and Witness) to highlight what vlogging does for people:
… [W]hat catalyzes vlogging’s back-and-forthness is the vlogger’s vulnerability—in other words, her willingness to publicly express herself, to share what she is thinking and feeling. Lange affirms and extends these insights. By sharing “intimate moments” and expressing themselves openly before a webcam, Lange suggests, vloggers can and do effect “social change,” evoking critical self-reflection and productive public discussion of issues. (p.193)
Because vlogs provide a sense of authenticity, connection, and even intimacy by design, their styles became a template for what folks largely considered “good” online video. See, for example, Tyler Oakley‘s earliest public video from October 1st, 2007:
Maybe “primordial soup” isn’t quite accurate, though, as vlogs are still very much alive and kicking. See, for example, Tyler Oakley’s most recent public video from September 11, 2018:
The structure is almost identical between the two videos; aside from production quality the biggest difference is that the channel has moved from his dorm to his living room (oh what a difference a decade makes). Tyler’s still talking about his life, he’s still talking to his audience, there’s still authenticity, vulnerability, and connection. So where else can we see the influence of vlogs on other YouTube genres? YouTube EDU immediately comes to mind (again, I’m very biased). You might recall from last week that I mentioned Crash Course, one of the largest channels on YouTube. Perhaps because it’s made by the brothers Green, it very much has the flavour one expects from a vlog: you have the authenticity of the presenter exchanging witty banter with both the audience and himself, and the connection comes from the breaking of the 4th wall and encouraging commenting:
The vulnerability’s there too, if you look hard enough: In the above video, John tells “me from the past” (played by himself) that his best and worst years are still to come; but rather than talking about what’s going on in his life as the source of content, Crash Course is broken up into playlists covering different subjects (in this case, World History). So with these trademark features in mind, I challenge you to spot the vlog’s influence on travel, news, gaming, cooking, and even adaptations of classic literature. Are they all vlogs? Are none of them vlogs? Do vlogs even exist? Give the question some thought, and then check out the next blog, in which I’ll go through a number of the different genres that exist and consider how libraries might use each of them. Thanks kindly, and don’t forget to ask questions.

Works Cited

  • Tolson, A. (2010). A new authenticity? communicative practices on YouTube. Critical Discourse Studies, 7(4), 277-289. doi:10.1080/17405904.2010.511834
  • Betancourt, R. (2016). Genre as medium on YouTube: The work of grace helbig. The Journal of Popular Culture, 49(1), 196-223. doi:10.1111/jpcu.12380. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/jpcu.12380
  • Werner, E. A. (2012). Rants, reactions, and other rhetorics: Genres of the YouTube vlog. https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/record/uuid:9c6ad19d-966e-472e-9c0d-6399a7db81a1
  • Frow, J., & Taylor & Francis eBooks A-Z. (2015;2014;). genre (Second ed.). London;New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. doi:10.4324/9781315777351

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