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What do Marilyn Manson, the Testical Festival and Queen Elizabeth have in common? They’re all on YouTube. No longer only the domain of the cute, the weird and the insanely boring (think family holiday videos), YouTube is becoming a platform for information dissemination and community engagement for more serious content. Scholars, international organisations and the queen are now using it. And the uptake is impressive.

Many university departments now have channels on YouTube to which they post lectures. In “Thanks to YouTube, professors are finding new audiences”, the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that lecturers are the new video-channel stars. Some videos of these public intellectuals enjoy more than 100 000 viewings!

In the United States, the National Science Foundation, Public Library of Science and the San Diego Supercomputing Centre have launched SciVee, essentially a YouTube for scientists. Scientists upload a video or audio file and synchronise it to the content of their scientific paper. The pubcast (publication plus accompanying audio/video) represents a quick and accessible summary of the research, which can be explored in depth in the actual research paper. Pubcasts are a visual addition to published papers that help reach and engage a wider audience. A similar effort is the Journal of Visualised Experiments, an online video publication for biological research.

And now for something completely different in academia: the YouTube conference abstract. The Call for Proposals for the 2008 conference of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (University of California) requires that, in addition to filling out an application, participants “make a two-minute video of their proposal, upload it to YouTube and tag the YouTube video with ‘HASTAC2008’.”

The international World Food Programme (WFP) is running a competition for “edgy 30- or 60-second video(s) that will make the online community buzz about global hunger”. For an example of what it is looking for, watch its YouTube Piggies video. This competition is the WFP’s way of engaging the YouTube generation on global issues.

Further, the WFP has said: “Filmmakers stand a better chance of winning if they get play on blogs or networking sites like Facebook or MySpace before the competition’s July 2008 deadline.” Competition entrants not only need to spend time creating an entry, but are also encouraged to market it.

This is an excellent example of how digitally enabled youth, who increasingly want to produce as well as consume content, are best engaged when offered the opportunity to participate (hence Professor Henry Jenkins’s notion of the emerging “participatory culture“). Jenkins points out that a participatory culture is “one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created)”.

So the WFP capitalises on the value that young people place on audience feedback, which they receive explicitly as comments or implicitly through number of viewings, as a way of ensuring that the entries are of a high quality and that they resonate with the young, always-on generation. Of course they save on marketing costs because the entrants themselves are spreading the word.

Lastly, the queen now has a Royal YouTube channel. You can view all Christmas messages broadcast since 1957, the year she was very excited to be using — for the first time — a new technology (TV) to better reach the people. Apparently she has always been a bit of an early adopter and was happy to broadcast her last Christmas message on YouTube. Nice one, sister.

YouTube is one of the signifiers of the cultural shift towards visual media. It fits within a broader shift towards a more participatory culture that chooses to communicate and engage through multiple modes, such as MXit, podcasts and the web. Perhaps, in a distant future, when South Africa is freed from her bandwidth shackles, educators here will post videos of their lessons online. They might even accept YouTube videos made by learners as homework.


  • Steve Vosloo is the 21st Century Learning Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation. He is a past Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University, where he researched youth and digital media. He blogs at Except where otherwise noted, content released under a Creative Commons License.


Steve Vosloo

Steve Vosloo is the 21st Century Learning Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation. He is a past Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University, where he researched youth and digital media. He blogs at

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