YouTube ate my research field

Cross-posted from Networked Researcher.

As a researcher who did fieldwork on popular music in 2006 and 2007, I’m coming to this YouTube series as an accidental dinosaur: someone whose published research contains almost no study of YouTube, even though her fieldwork took place at the very time its users were just beginning to codify the new kinds of identity performances YouTube made possible.

YouTube launched in February 2005. By 2006, it was already crammed with music video as well as (its first intended use) original short films. I first became conscious of YouTube in the summer of 2006, when friends began sharing links to music videos with each other through email. After deciding to research popular music as an example of how political rupture, conflict and nationalist ideology affect everyday life, I was starting my first period of fieldwork in Zagreb and could use the apartment’s fast broadband internet connection (an improvement on the connection I had access to at home in the UK) to explore the site as a musical resource.

Did YouTube change my research practices and my field? Not as much as it should have. At the time, I only used it as a searchable repository for exploring commonalities among the popular music of south-east Europe and planning an abortive side project about cover versions.

My next apartment had dial-up internet but satellite TV; I used music television as my main resource for gathering examples of music videos and failed to appreciate that YouTube might be changing not only my methods of data collection but also the field itself.

Unlike Martin Pogačar, the author of a recent post for Networked Researcher on user-generated digital memorials of Yugoslavia, I didn’t manage to theorise the changes that YouTube and digital video sharing might be making in musical memorialisation in Croatia. Maybe this was poor timing on my part. My fieldwork ended in September 2007 (almost concurrently with the end of a heatwave that had affected my health and slowed the last three weeks of research to a crawl). Martin writes that in late 2007, when he first began investigating digital memory, there were still hardly any examples of ‘grassroots’ or ‘vernacular’ memory production on the site compared to the wealth of user-generated montages YouTube contains today.

During my own fieldwork, in other words, users had only just begun to go beyond re-recording the original videos from television and re-broadcasting them across national borders; the memory montage was only just being consolidated as a genre with conventions of form (the types of image and sound that might be joined together) and reception (the supportive or antagonistic comments left by other users who identify themselves in terms of ethnicity, language, sporting affinity and/or politics). Without appreciating this emergent genre myself, I was unable to alter my research design to take account of it: I never asked about video sharing during interviews on music, nor did I even begin to conceive of ways to observe video sharing practices in the field.

Martin studies vernacular digital memorials that engage with memories of Yugoslavia, Tito, anti-fascism and Yugoslav popular music (the soundtrack to almost every montage). Equally, YouTube is a repository for montages that memorialise nationalist narratives using exactly the same techniques. The diasporic ethnic communities whose members show each other stories on YouTube are transformations of the diasporas in Dona Kolar-Panov’s research from the 1990s (£) who mediated their connection to ex-Yugoslav homelands by watching VHS cassettes of music and war news.

In the link below, a creator who identifies themselves as a Croat resident outside Croatia accompanies their own photographs from a touristic return visit with the famous patriotic pop song ‘Moja domovina’ (‘My homeland’), one of the most famous songs to have emerged from the beginning of Croatia’s war of independence in 1991.

While this involves Croatia, YouTube contains similar texts for every nation in the Western Balkans. Other montages (many other montages) incorporate music and/or images referencing nationalist collaborationists from the Second World War or symbols of contemporary far-right significance. I have not yet attempted to gauge what proportion of patriotic videos on YouTube are far-right or extreme nationalist – far less have I attempted, so far, to determine where to draw the boundary.

Could and should YouTube have changed my practices of disseminating research? The ease of sharing music texts with colleagues and students rests largely on continued access to YouTube and the clips themselves. Each lecture of the ten-week nationalism course I teach this semester begins with a ‘song of the week’ straight from YouTube; to achieve the same thing before YouTube would have required access to recording equipment, signals from broadcasters in eight or nine countries, and the luck to be tuned in at the right time.

Since my book on popular music in Croatia, Sounds of the Borderland, was published last year, I’ve often mused about how it would look as a hypertext publication filled with embedded clips. (I’m told at least one reader has read the book at their PC, searching YouTube for song titles as they went.) The future of pop research? But there’s a problem of legacy here. Since 2009 or so, most multinational record companies have settled copyright disputes and launched their own YouTube accounts: a link to their official copy of the video is likely to be permanent.

The managers of some performers in south-east Europe run official accounts for their acts and a few record companies from the region have followed the multinationals’ lead this year. The uploaders of most clips, however, aren’t the copyright owners. When a rights-holder complains, videos or whole accounts risk deactivation: most of the music video channels I subscribed to in 2006 have disappeared. YouTube links in a print text would very quickly be outdated, while checking and replacing broken links in book-length hypertext would be a mammoth editing task.

With Sounds of the Borderland, I compromised and appended a ‘playlist’ with a list of songs readers should search for. Would there be a more elegant solution if I returned to the topic in another book?