13.1: Evaluating YouTube


YouTube's mission is to create 'an online video community' that allows members to communicate about the videos on bulletin boards and via social-networking tools. A study was conducted by Rotman et al (2009) to evaluate a small part of YouTube. They chose to ask the question 'Is YouTube a community?' They answered this question using two different but complementary methods: a qualitative analysis using Grounded Theory (see Chapter 8) of users' feelings about the YouTube community and their interaction patterns, and a quantitative analysis of the actual YouTube structure as created by their articulated ties. They analyzed more than 30 YouTube videos and their findings showed how YouTube users were almost unanimous in their strong feelings about YouTube being an established community. They said that YouTube is a social space that offers the conditions needed to cultivate a community. Their own experiences revealed close-knit relations with others, for example:

Initially I just want to get my work seen. And then I started to get into communicating with people in this community I made really good friends, people I started talking to everyday, who I have known for most of a year. Some of which are very close friends I can talk to about personal things. (Participant 15)

I've made all kinds of friends, all through this site. Even people who live in this city that I would not have met otherwise. [I also] met people from across the world. (Participant 2)

Structurally, dense hubs of cross-relations typify communities whereas reports of solitary and interactions involving pairs are more characteristic of a broadcasting platform than a community. In their study, users explicitly described the YouTube interaction pattern as that of a hub-like online community:

[the YouTube community is] a spiderweb, because everyone interacts with each other, and everyone is a sender and a receiver. And this is me [points to himself] and I interact with all these different people. (Participant 22)

A structural analysis was also conducted and showed the communication patterns among over 1500 users to see if a structure of community exists. The social network analysis revealed 2238 communication links between these users. Social networks exhibit a wide variation in their size and other structural characteristics. However, if a social network takes a particular form, which includes many clusters or hubs, we can assume that a community-structure exists. Alternatively, the network structure can be looser, indicating pair-wise or small group communication that does not support community interaction.

In structural network analysis several metrics can be used to describe the network, one of which calculates the amount of clustering in the network using a coefficient. A high clustering coefficient indicates strong clustering and hub-like structure. In this study the clustering coefficient was very low at 0.44, indicating that there does not appear to be a cohesive community structure and that the links are probably mostly between random pairs. The ties among YouTube users definitely did not exhibit a dense hub-like structure of a community.

In sum, the users reported feelings of membership, attachment to other users, fulfillment and influence through shared goals, and a feeling of belonging to the larger social body of YouTube contributors, referring to themselves as 'YouTubers.' However, the structural analysis demonstrated that users' relationships do not reflect the perceived community; YouTube structure looks random. The discernable gap between the way users view their interaction patterns and the ways in which these interactions are manifested in the structural analysis indicates that different methods of analysis can provide different results.