If you’ve ever watched a video on YouTube, you’ve probably noticed, on the right hand side, a list of other videos that YouTube’s viewer algorithms believe you might be interested in. According to Associate Professor of Media and Society Leah Shafer, those sidebar videos can play a major role in the virality — or spreadability — of the main video’s message. Spreadability, a term coined by educator Henry Jenkins, refers to the ability of social media content to be dispersed widely through both formal and informal networks.
In a guest essay on one of the most popular academic blogs in the U.S., Jenkins’ Confessions of an Aca-Fan, Shafer focused on the YouTube page of an activist group called We Are Seneca Lake, and discussed the ways that the commercial interface, with its recommendations and advertisements, affected the circulation and exhibition of the activist content of the group’s videos.
In her blog posting, Shafer told of showing one of the We are Seneca Lake videos to the students in her “Introduction to Media and Society” class — and of finding them distracted by the content placed in the sidebar. “What I thought was going to be a discussion about We Are Seneca Lake’s activist video aesthetics quickly became a discussion of the YouTube exhibition interface and the ways that targeted marketing shapes our experience of watching video on YouTube: especially video with activist content,” she writes.
Media manipulation of the viewer experience isn’t a new phenomenon, says Shafer. “YouTube is not alone in manipulating viewer experiences … integrated advertising has been a part of cinematic exhibition since its earliest days. Social media apps may not run 30 second commercials like we see on conventional television, but they still contain and are contained by advertising.”
The catch, she says, is that the viewer can’t control the content of the suggested sidebar videos. “Can folks avoid this if they want to use social media? No. The best way to be smart about media consumption is to be a critical consumer … and to take courses that teach you how to discern and analyze media messages.”
Shafer’s essay had its genesis in a panel discussion at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in 2016 that she participated in along with Jenkins, who is provost professor of communication, journalism, cinematic arts and education at the University of Southern California; Lauren Berliner, assistant professor of media and communication studies and cultural studies at University of Washington-Bothell; and Sam Ford, co-founder of The Artisanal Economies Project.
Shafer says that YouTube is an invaluable teaching tool that serves as both an archive and an example of digital exhibition interfaces. Her insights into social media manipulation on YouTube and other social media platforms will inform her class work in the future. “I will develop this work further in a class I’m designing about smart phones: their interfaces, economics, apps, and aesthetics,” she says.