Digital Television: YouTube, Web 2.0, and Convergence Culture

In the multi-author book, “Television as Digital Media”, authors Bennet and Strange discuss the implications and affordances that accompany the rise of digital television. Bennet and Strange are careful not to define digital television as a complete departure from its analog predecessor, but rather a remediated sibling whose various digital affordances are merely expansions, upgrades, or amalgamations of its analog counterparts, they write “this is no radical break from television’s analog past: the practices and technologies of digital television have long been established within television and its associated industries. Nor has the future arrived with digital television: the medium of television remains one in transition” (Bennet, 6). Bennet and Strange frame the discussion of digital television within the ideology of cultural convergence, an ideology predicated on the rise of a digital culture– a culture “that increasingly both networks and atomizes society”. Throughout most of the analog era, there was a clear dichotomy between active producers of media content (which were almost always corporate entities) and the passive consumers of it (audiences). However, thanks to various technological breakthroughs such as Web 2.0 and Broadband, this system of producing media and cultural capital is becoming obsolete. With the increasing social and cultural consciousness of its active viewers, people are beginning to question not what they are consuming but rather why. 

“Perhaps what unifies the diverse range of interests I have discussed above— from political economy to public service broadcasting, iPlayer to YouTube, ideology to cultural practices, podcast to digital short— is a more simple question: “What is television for?” This becomes a more pressing question, for industry, audience, and the academy alike, when considering television as digital media.” (Bennet, 22).

Bennet and Strange’s chapter entitled  “User-Created content and Everyday Cultural Practice: Lessons from Youtube” may offer some insight into why television, particularly digital television, is culturally lucrative and socially relevant.

Creativity is now seen by many policymakers and educators as normatively part of everyday life for ordinary citizens (especially young people) in contemporary capitalist societies, and in reality user-created content is a significant source of our shared cultural experience” (Bennet, 312).

“Creativity is now seen by many policymakers and educators as normatively part of everyday life for ordinary citizens (especially young people) in contemporary capitalist societies, and in reality user-created content is a significant source of our shared cultural experience” (312). In an increasingly creative society, digital media platforms such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and Reddit are creative outlets through which user-created content can proliferate and ostensibly add to our society’s overall cultural capital. However, as always, corporate structures feel the need to place precedence on the “economic” implications such content can have while on the other end of the spectrum, “public service broadcasters, cultural institutions, and government departments are embracing user-created content and co-creation as part of their service missions” (312).

This new participatory culture, regardless of all its socio-economic implications, is starkly representative of the transition from a passive consumptive audience into an active participatory one. Corporate structures argue that the open exchange and creation of digital media content has an inexorable foundation based off commercial culture and products, marginalizing their revenues and exploring creative avenues that they themselves may have wished to pursue.

The premise of the “passive” audience at the mercy of a dominant broadcast media industry is fundamental to some of the most influential discussions of how user-created content represents broader social and cultural transformations. (Bennet, 314)

Participation AND Convergence!

However, the transition from commercial to public is seen in more than just the cultural products produces; audiences are becoming producers & distributors, and consumers are becoming innovators. This “convergence culture” is primarily an affordance of the connectivity capabilities that accompanied the emergence of “Web 2.0″. Web 2.0, as discussed by expert theorist Frank Kleeman, ”is about interactive and collaborative structures that enable users to create ‘user-generated content’”. According to Kleeman, audiences are becoming “working consumers” which he defines as:

active in the production process and can be utilized as value adding workers; b) the capacities they possess are valuable economic assets; and c) they are systematically integrated into cor-porate structures, where their actions can be monitored and manipulated by corporate managers much as if they were employees.

Google Purchased Youtube in 2006 for $1.65 billion dollars, turning what was at the time the largest video hosting and sharing site on the internet from a cultural wild west into a structured and corporate system. Google knew that the cultural capital found on YouTube would inevitably exceed amusing amateur videos , they knew that YouTube would become the quintessential website for almost all video hosting. They were able to partner with Universal Music Group and Sony BMG Music Entertainment Corp in order to launch Vevo, their extensive and lucrative music channel through which they own the rights to screen almost every music video, contemporary or otherwise, that one can think of. And even if their official licensed music provider can’t show the music video, the fact they still allow user-uploads will probably allow people to view unofficial or otherwise inaccessible  content anyways.

“When I discovered YouTube, I didn’t work for for 5 days. I did NOTHING. I viewed “Cookie Monster sings Chocolate Rain about 1000 times”– Michael Scott.

So while digital television is absolutely a departure from its analog predecessor, it’s mechanical changes are not so stark nor drastic as the socio-cultural changes concomitant with the shift from analog into digital. While digital television is more a remediation of analog TV, this new digital culture that is arising from it is much more complex to understand and definitely a much more worthwhile scholastic endeavor.

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