Intelligent Life on Youtube?

I’ve been on Youtube since 2007 and for most of that period worked in a University in the UK. My initial videos were actually made to allow me to think out loud about the PhD I was working on at the time, and most of those I’ve made since reflect my attempts to combine my work in Higher Education (specifically in arts education) with the peculiarities of online video communities.

For about 5 years I was making content of this kind every day, amounting to over 2000 videos, and also got to know and interact with some great people, including other academics who could see the value of YT not simply as a site for entertainment but as a space for ‘hybrid pedagogy’, a more democratic, self-organising, bottom-up form of learning. It was really exciting and the potential seemed, for a while, to be enormous.

Over the last few years however I’ve experienced a distinct lowering in my faith that such a thing might ever be even remotely possible. Of course there are many great channels putting out high-value educational content but very few which intimately engage with the social life of the media itself; getting involved in comment sections, making response videos, sharing personal stories and perspectives, combining education with activism or commenting on current events.

One of the main reasons why I think the promise of YT as a place where intelligent life might flourish is failing is the well-documented level of trolling and hatred that permeates the site, and which threatens to silence any but the most obnoxious or innocuous voices. I stopped making regular videos a couple of years ago when the vitriol I was receiving for having the temerity to make unpopular content spilled over into my personal life. In addition to receiving the usual grammatically-challenged insults and thinly-veiled threats the university I was working at was also contacted several times by folk demanding my removal. Eventually these ‘downsides’ to being an academic on Youtube outweighed the benefits and I gave up making public videos entirely.

And it isn’t just me. Over the past three years I have known four other academics leave Youtube for reasons very similar to my own. These were folk who were similarly motivated to bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’, between universities (which are often seen as elitist) and the wider world represented on social media. These people wanted to contribute their knowledge and also to learn from the contributions of others. They wanted to find ways to speak and to listen in ways which were more inclusive, and which the diverse communities on Youtube seemed to be able to offer. These fine people, like myself, became disheartened by the inability of YT to foster anything but the lowest common denominator, the most clickbaity, the most provocative, the most crudely entertaining, and the failure of the platform to support those who wanted to raise the bar.

Some might say (and indeed have said) that this toxicity is just a natural part of the online ecology and we should grow a thicker skin, or not feed the trolls, or any of the other platitudes that are trotted out to excuse bad behaviour, but I don’t think that’s good enough. When the comment section under a video is two thirds insult or threat then the value of that comment section drops to zero. No one with anything to contribute wants to be part of it. When you have to wonder if your latest video will prompt some faceless anti-intellectual gonk to contact your employer then the chilling effect takes hold and you censor yourself, (God forbid you should talk positively about feminism, or BLM, or the representation of women in video games). The number of eyeballs on the site might increase but the I.Q. of the site goes down.

Just two weeks ago another academic, a professor at a UK university who has made excellent educational content on Youtube for many years and has been passionate about his commitment to a democratised pedagogy closed his channel and deleted his blog. This was a direct result of his family being threatened because he’d had the audacity to argue with some of the many hate-mongers profiting from the despicable content they put out. The story is dispiritingly familiar. Following these differences of opinion the followers of those professional victimisers took it upon themselves to take down the ‘opposition’ by any means necessary.

I can’t say I blame this person from removing themselves from the platform. What would be the benefit of staying? Who in their right mind would put themselves and their families in the firing line to further an educational ideal that Youtube itself signally refuses to give value to?

Particularly galling in this last case is that now those same Patreon-funded and Youtube-promoted haters are doing victory laps, making videos about how they’ve ‘destroyed’ another ‘SJW’, simultaneously making the world a stupider place and profiting financially from their mob-endorsed media lobotomies.

I certainly don’t want to ignore the fantastic educational content that is put out by channels such as Crash Course, Vihart, and Veritasium, who do seem to avoid the most negative consequences of trying to be ‘smarter every day’ (although I know these folk do occasionally meet similar problems). The educators on Youtube that I’m talking about, (those of them that are left at least), don’t have large subscriber numbers and monitised content. They aren’t about making professional video lectures but rather contributing to communities that learn together through engagement and shared interest. For those of us who are interested in promoting this kind of intelligent life on Youtube, the deck is most definitely stacked against us.

I don’t know what the solution is to this. I left Youtube and only very occasionally make videos these days, and even then only on topics which don’t attract the destructive attention of the hateful horde. Maybe a smarter comment section would help. Maybe the new de-monitisation policies will deter the professional victimisers (although since they seem to be mostly funded through Patreon I doubt it). It would be a real shame, and a lost opportunity, if this was the new normal though. I hope not.