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Civic Engagement on YouTube?

The third speaker in this AoIR 2012 session is Sharon Strover, who begins by noting a racist YouTube video which complained about Asian students in the UCLA library and rapidly generated a substantial number of response videos; this can be seen as a form of civic engagement which must be distinguished from political participation.

Online spaces generally aren't very good at sustaining Habermasian qualities of political discourse – reciprocal, open, equal and rational discussion – but rather enable the formation of ephemeral groups which actualise interaction through content production and consumption in networks of information flows. This does not usually promote political involvement in a narrow sense, but supports greater civic involvement.

YouTube enables various modalities of participation and interaction – content sharing, liking, commenting, responding through new videos, etc. Half the material on YouTube is user-created, and this self-presenting material is most frequently commented on. But what is the nature of engagement in a YouTube forum? Sharon's study examined the response network to the racist video, and further explored the response networks of two response videos (a news report, and a parody of a video by the university chancellor) in turn.

The original video received some 24,000 comments, but the news report received the greatest number of comments per commenter (at 1.34). There was greater network centrality in comments to the parody video, indicating greater civic engagement; this differs from the news report network, where interactions were largely one-off.

Overall, though, a small percentage of the total number of commenters engaged in any sustained form of civic participation. This was the case even more so for the news video, suggesting that the broadcast model of sender and receiver was carried over at least to some extent to the YouTube space in this case.