In an age of digital media where images come fast and cheap through wireless connections as abundant as 747s flying through the ether, YouTube has emerged as a sourcing way point for video media. As humans, we are primarily visual creatures and thus have not only embraced the acceleration of increased visual access through digital media, but have thrived upon it. Yet, in our headlong rush into increased visual re-representation of the world around us, we may be losing precious substance in the experience.
Yes, increased megapixel displays on smart phones, tablets, televisions and computer screens have brought increased visual clarity, but have they helped to add any historical clarity? One would imagine that a media source such as YouTube would add to the expansion and understanding of our collective past through vivid depictions and recreations of historical events, but more often than not, it serves only to provide very superficial access and representation.
YouTube and History Class
As an elementary school teacher I am constantly looking for visual representations of historical and scientific elements to show to my students. Since all my students were born well into the new millennium, I’ve tried to embrace the fact that their default experience for many things is going to be visual. Laptops, smart phones, and tablets are all common interface methods for them. There is no anachronistic time lag as they seek to interact with the digital medium. For them, YouTube is a common and anticipated place to start research on any variety of topics.
When my class read and discussed the westward expansion in the United States and the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, it seemed only natural to include a clip from the 1992 film, “Far and Away.”
No matter how well the text sought to describe the scene, my students did not seem to grasp the intensity of the moment – until they experienced it through video. Suddenly they had questions and comments and went back to the original text with renewed interest and zeal.
The access to modern reinterpretations of past events in film serves as a wonderful bridge for the next generation. It plays to their strengths (or weaknesses as it may be) and provides context in color and sound that no primary source document can. While it can spur further interest into research, it fails more often than not as a research tool itself. These clips rarely offer citations for sources and the viewer must back track information about the information through other sources anyway. The veracity of the events displayed is also always in contention because the viewer cannot be sure whether these recreations are wholly accurate or “Hollywood-ized” for greater mass appeal.
The final issue with using movie clips for historical study lies in perspective. While movie clips provide a rich visual experience, they are only as reliable as the research team hired to re-create the given event. Furthermore, the point of view of the director and/or writer may influence how the material is presented to the public
LEGOs, Bunker Hill, and The Arab Spring
Probably the biggest problem with trying to use YouTube as a research tool is the abundance of material that is purely for entertainment purposes and is therefor largely un-sourced or cited. After all, YouTube was never meant to serve an archival research tool. Founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim conceived the idea as merely a simple way for people to share videos. While YouTube can serve as a gateway to developing or expanding interest in historical topics, it is severely limited in its capacity to provide viable research information on any historical material that is pre-video.
One popular (and admittedly entertaining) way for students to portray research on historical topics has been the use of LEGO toy blocks to recreate past events. Whether it’s the Battle of Bunker Hill or John Smith settling the New World, amateur historians/animators have used stop-motion animation to create humorous and somewhat informative presentations. Yet this comes back to the original intention of YouTube, to share videos between friends that entertain.
In contrast to this, YouTube has also become a source for material that will be immeasurably important to future historians. In 2011, as the “Arab Spring” swept through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, protesters and witnesses to history-in-progress used YouTube as an archive for their videos. Whether it was to catalog historical protests in Tharir Square in Cairo, Egypt or mass celebrations in Tunisia, these videos, both amateur and professional serve as a digital record of history as it happens. In Syria, where protesters continue to battle against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the videos on YouTube have become, in some instances, the sole source of media documenting the conflict.
The massive upload of these type of user-generated videos around a singular historical event is a relatively modern occurrence. The increased capability of hand-held devices to record video with ease has changed the manner in which videos are now being utilized. The near-broadcast quality of amateur recordings has enabled the public to flood video archives like YouTube with their own recordings of global events. This has created the post-video era in which we, as a society, find ourselves.
While the key difference between the two different examples cited above is the distinction between representing historical information from the pre- and post-video eras, the problem of sourcing remains. Watching a YouTube clip from History.com might drive you to a web page with further material, but it does not in itself provide citations. Similarly, there are often questions about the authenticity and accuracy of user generated videos, especially in conflict zones, leaving the definitive sourcing in question.
In the end, it may well be that YouTube should be left to remain as what it was originally intended to be – a site where people can share videos with others. If one is looking to research historical information about a given subject, there are other, more focused sources in which to delve. YouTube is simply too cluttered with random un-sourced and un-cited material to be of any real relevance for historical research.
While YouTube has created “channels” to help guide users to specific content, the search for “history” as a channel provides over 57,000 options alone. HistoryTube, which seems to have been around since July of 2008 is one of these channels that has attempted to collate some of the videos produced for mass consumption. Yet even here, unless there is a tag on the video linking it to the Discovery Channel or the BBC, the source of the video may be unclear. It may be that either YouTube continues to evolve and provide even more specialized channels, or other sourcing engines/archives will appear to take on content specific loads. For now, YouTube is driven like any other search engine by popularity in views. While a search for George Washington directs users to a highly entertaining rap with over 4 million views, the value of most videos, especially those depicting historical information from the pre-video era, is going to be simply as stated by the video label – entertainment.
I recognize that I am only beginning to delve into the use of YouTube as a historical research tool. I have found it much better as an illustrative aid. I am curious though if others have had a more positive experience and if so, in what manner? Is there a better way to search through combining filters? Is there a way of going beyond the use of “channels” to better find specific material. Finally, what alternatives have others found (if any) that are a more useful and citation-rich video search tool?