Lilian Hughes

Replay, Like, Share: A Mediological Analysis of Digital Memorials and Fantasy on YouTube

YouTube is a video sharing website, it launched in June 2005; it was sold to Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion.[[#_edn1|[i]]]1 In the US, thirty-seven percent of all online videos are watched on YouTube.[[#_edn2|[ii]]]2 In the UK, it is the most visited entertainment site.[[#_edn3|[iii]]]3 In 2006, it was estimated there were over 80 million videos on YouTube, by 2008 this number had risen to 85 million.[[#_edn4|[iv]]]4 Although the exact number is impossible to know, there is now thought to be well over 100 million videos on YouTube, with 35 hours of content uploaded every minute. But what is YouTube? And who’s watching? This paper investigates YouTube from a mediological perspective, focusing less on the content of YouTube videos and more on the transmission. In other words, I wish to analyse the process of watching a YouTube video. In order to do so I examine both cultural practices of consumption and the technical elements of the video streaming website. Using the work of Regis Debray, I aim to investigate the social and technical consequences of YouTube, asking, “Not ‘what is this thought the product of’ but ‘what has it effectively produced?’”[[#_edn5|[v]]]5

This paper investigates two separate video transmissions in order to evaluate the differing functions of YouTube. In my first example, I investigate the effects of watching 9/11 footage on YouTube and argue that the transmission of this footage creates a ‘digital memorial’, in which the viewer is able to mourn. In my second example, I turn to the YouTube charts to investigate the success of YouTube’s most viewed videos. Here, I argue that YouTube provides a space similar to soap opera, where female fantasy can play out on repeat. I have deliberately chosen two diverse and contrasting examples in order to demonstrate that YouTube itself is a diverse medium, which often contradicts its own functions. Before I begin my analysis, however, I explain why mediology proves such a fundamental theory for investigating the functions and meanings of YouTube.

Why Mediology?

Why is Debray’s work so useful in analysing YouTube? In part, Debray’s work hones in on the importance of medium evolution. That is, in order to effectively understand a new medium, the history and the contemporary context of other mediums must play a significant role. One medium does not replace another; rather mediums evolve and overlap with one another. In the case of YouTube content, consider the role of home movies and music videos, which existed long before the video sharing website. Furthermore, the plethora of visual remixes (in the form of machinema, for example) does not replace the audio remix. Quite the opposite, in fact, since the visual remix often utilizes audio remix, creating a bricolage hybrid. The same can be said for video blogging, or vlogging, far from replacing blogging (a medium which itself evolved from print opinion journalism), vlogging is an extension of blogging. These YouTubian hybrids are made possible by both the cultural practices of past mediums and the technological developments of the digital age. Mediology proves so useful because it acknowledges the importance of both factors in creating meaning and shaping society.

Mediology differs from previous structuralist theories because it is concerned not only with the sign itself but also with the vehicle that carries the sign. It is one thing to examine the various disciplines that invisibly teach discursive practices, it is another thing to examine how these disciplines are taught, and it is yet another thing to examine the mediums through which theses disciplines are learnt. Michel Foucault provides a substantial analysis of the disciplines and their pedagogical structure, investigating, for example, the school, the hospital, and the factory. Missing from the Foucault’s post-structural thought, however, is the examination of medium, which provides so much insight into the operation of social institutions. Debray states that mediology “is a question, in the first approximation, of analyzing the "higher social functions" (religion, ideology, art, politics) in their relationship with the means and mediums/environments [milieux] of transmission and transport.”[[#_edn6|[vi]]]6 In other words, mediology goes beyond basic semiotic or structuralist approach, in order to understand both the message and the transmission of the message. Debray continues,

The significant point, and the canter of gravity of reflection, is the interval [l'entre-deux: the space (in)between]. It is still the fuzzy zone of interactions between technology and culture, or the interferences between our technologies of memorizing, transmission, and displacement, on the one hand, and our modes of belief, thought, and organization, on the other.[[#_edn7|[vii]]]7

Mediology is thus a hybrid theory that treads a delicate path between technological determinism of society and social determinism of technology. The name of the theory itself demonstrates this hybrid; “media”, a social construct, and “ology”, a ‘scientific’ suffix, combine to form a concept designed for both social and technical analysis.[[#_edn8|[viii]]]8 It is a theory built for a digital age, but one that applies throughout history. A mediological analysis of the bicycle, for example, would reveal the bicycle was a product of social conditions (and caused social consequences) as much as it was a technical innovation (and failure). Another example would be the social factors required for the printing press’s success—a higher literacy rate and methods for national distribution.

In a contemporary age, however, the significance of mediology cannot be overrated. Advancing technical practices, globalization, and constant media consumption all create an environment in which transmissions become simultaneously more frequent and more unnoticed. In the Western world, particularly, the increased numbers of technical devices that transmit both to one (the user) and to many (other networks), means that younger generations are, to a certain extent, developing bilingual tendencies—they learn to communicate using both the spoken word and digital parole. The consumption of technical transmissions becomes a natural process, constant and invisible. Mediology provides an understanding not of how these devices affect consumers (for this would lead to technological determinism), but of the space connecting the device and the consumer. As Debray explains, mediology “does not concern an object nor an area of the real (e.g., the media), but the relationship between these objects or these areas. Between an ideality and a materiality, a thought and a machine, a plan and a device. It comes from the taste for two dimensions (this and that).”[[#_edn9|[ix]]]9

How, then, does this object relationship apply to YouTube? When discussing mediology, the “institutional means of transmission always precedes the content of what is communicated.”[[#_edn10|[x]]]10 Thus a mediological investigation of YouTube must access how YouTube transmits videos and what alterations the medium of YouTube makes to the ways in which meaning is understood. How, for example, does watching a movie trailer on YouTube differ from watching it in a cinema? On one level, there are very clear technical differences, screen size being the main one. On another level, however, the disruption of viewing practices shifts the experience entirely. YouTube does not demand silent viewing, nor does the viewer need to be seated, there is no limit to when or how many times the trailer can be viewed, the viewing space can be chosen by the viewer (so long as there is an internet connection), and collective viewing may become a digital practice. Furthermore, a trailer can be watched on YouTube long after it is shown in theatres. Movie trailers on YouTube do not air before the viewers desired video (although advertisements now do); rather, the viewer seeks out the trailers she wishes to watch. There are also economic differences, watching a trailer on YouTube does not demand the purchase of a cinema ticket. Even if the content (and, in the case of movie trailers, the form) remains the same from one medium (the cinema screen) to another (the YouTube screen), the transmission still changes the viewing experience. As the movie trailer example proves, the medium holds significant control over the consumption of media. While the movie trailer example reveals the mediums ability to shape consumption, a mediological approach can also be used to examine the hidden structures ordering society. For example, what are the effects of transmitting 9/11 footage on YouTube? And what do YouTube’s most viewed videos reveal about social practices?

Watching the Second Plane

Currently, typing “9 11 footage” into a YouTube search generates 330,000 returns. A video showing the second plane fly into the South Tower has been watched 2,226,841times. It has 4017 ‘likes’ and 622 ‘dislikes’. Another clip, showing the plane hit the second tower, has 2,371,367 views, 1340 ‘likes’, and 160 ‘dislikes’. These clips link to a video entitled “Devil Face in the Twin Towers”, which has been viewed 3,053,168 times, this video links to another video entitled “Michael Jackson’s ghost… spotted again?” which has been viewed 17,437,578 times. While these numbers and links will inevitably change, the numbers will not decrease. What impact do these 9/11 videos have? What are the effects of watching them as independent clips compared to watching them in a series (perhaps with Michael Jackson's ghost)? What are the effects of ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ them? And how does the medium of YouTube shape the transmission of their meaning?

YouTube is not a producer of content. Rather, YouTube is an aggregator of or platform for content. Thus YouTube, as Jean Burgress and Joshua Green explain, "is not actually in the video business—its business, rather, is the provision of a convenient and usable platform for online video sharing: users (some of them premium content partners) supply the content, which in turn brings new participants and new audiences."[[#_edn11|[xi]]]11 YouTube does not upload videos. YouTube does not watch videos. YouTube is a medium that allows its users to upload and view videos. While the linking of 9/11 footage to an apparent image of Michael Jackson’s ghost may seem a strange juxtaposition, in fact, this is the result of an algorithm that links videos based on users’ previous views. There is nothing random or bizarre about the linking of 9/11 footage to Michael Jackson’s ghost, it is a logical and rational link given that the two videos share viewers. YouTube, as a medium, creates this type of linking, which provides an understanding of the behavioural patterns of its users. Only those with certain access keys are able to know how many hits a website receives, but the number of hits a video receives is published at the bottom of every YouTube video.

Regardless of a video’s hits, however, the placement of 9/11 videos on YouTube raises certain questions over transmission and control. Footage of 9/11 is a sensitive issue. It is, after all, the documentation of death. Every time a user watches a clip of the towers falling or of the second plane’s collision, the viewer is witnessing the death of hundreds of U.S. citizens. While the question of why someone would choose to watch the clip is certainly intriguing, the question here is what effect does watching the clip on YouTube have? Of course, the same display and discursive practices apply to the footage of 9/11 as to the movie trailer. The viewer can choose what clip to watch, as well as when, where, and how to watch it. This universal set up for all YouTube’s videos creates a kind of postmodern museum. Like a museum, YouTube provides an institution where the viewer goes specifically to consume culture. Unlike a museum, however, YouTube’s content selection does not discriminate against videos that fail to meet the preconceived notions of cultural quality, meaning the medium operates with populist postmodern values. Post-structuralist, Pierre Bourdieu argues that:

Nothing more totally manifests and achieves the autonomizing of aesthetic activity vis-à-vis extra-aesthetic interests or functions than the art museum’s juxtaposition of works. Through originally subordinated to quite different or even incompatible functions (crucifix next to fetish, Pieta and still life), these juxtaposed works tacitly demand attention to form rather than function, technique rather than theme[.][[#_edn12|[xii]]]12

This theory also applies to YouTube’s videos. Both 9/11 footage and the famous “Charlie Bit My Finger” video can play on YouTube, even if their function’s contrast or conflict. Bourdieu, however, is concerned with questions of quality, thus chooses to focus on form, rather than function. Mediology reverses this focus, suggesting that form is, at least in part, constructed by function or the transmission of the form. Therefore, YouTube provides a platform for videos to co-exit in juxtaposition. How, then, does this positioning affect their function?

9/11 footage on YouTube could have a number of contrasting functions. In one scenario, the ease with which a user can access and watch 9/11 clips and the quantity of material available, risks trivializing the event by shifting the viewer’s memory from remembering the event to remembering the image of the event. What becomes real is the image, not the incident. In other words, the transmission of 9/11 footage on YouTube becomes the memory of 9/11, and the footage begins to transmit authenticity. The unseen deaths fade from memory (since they are not visible in the footage itself) and the image of the plane flying into the second tower becomes the (hyper)real event—mundanely reoccurring over 2,371,367 times on YouTube. This Baudrillardian approach, however, reflects very negatively on YouTube and the viewer.

A more optimistic approach might show how YouTube provides a space to mourn collectively and to communally remember experiencing the event. Again, YouTube’s usability and accessibility allow users to watch and upload videos with ease. In terms of community, however, it is YouTube’s comments section that provides a space to share and mourn. While the majority of recent comments on 9/11 videos reference the death of Osama Bin Laden, older comments reveal how the footage acts as a release of emotion—especially, it seems, for younger viewers. In the video “Live TV Footage/Coverage of 9/11 (Second Plane hit, Collapse of Towers) World Trade Center” (shown below) uploaded in 2010, early comments suggest that the YouTube video might function as a type of digital memorial. The experience of watching the footage is perhaps comparable to the experience of visiting the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, for example, or the Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Ronaldinhollew writes,

I've never actually seen these pictures.
On the day of the attack I was in school, and didn't hear about it until I was back home (I live in Wales, the attacks took place at 2:30 in the afternoon our time). So the only big event that I saw live on screen was the second collapsing tower and that was shocking enough.[[#_edn13|[xiii]]]13

Displayed on YouTube, ronaldinhollew is able not only to access and watch 9/11 footage; he is also able to comment. This technical function, combined with the video sharing, allows him to articulate and share his experience of 9/11. Another viewer, JWBlottin, is also prompted to expresses his memory of the experience,

I remember I was in 7th grade when this happened. We had a state local school news channel called Channel 11 News. All I remember was the thirty minutes my head lay on my desk, and sound of my classmates crying.
Such a terrible terrible day.[[#_edn14|[xiv]]]14

The ability to comment (and, in the case of JWBlottin and ronaldinhollew, grieve) is a key feature of YouTube.

According to co-founder Jawed Karim, four features lead to YouTube’s success. They are “video recommendations via the “related videos” list, an email link to enable video sharing, comments (and other social networking functionality), and an embedded video player.”[[#_edn15|[xv]]]15 Although these technical features provide some clue to YouTube’s unique success, cultural practices are also responsible for shaping YouTube. Arguably, cultural and technical practices adopt equal responsibility for YouTube’s success. The remaining section of this paper explores YouTube’s biggest hits to date, examining what cultural signifiers lead to YouTube’s success.

32 More Comments Since You Started Viewing

Among other records, the YouTube charts provide information on the most viewed, most liked, and most discussed videos. Each video, in turn, provides information on the demographic of its viewer, specifically age, gender, and location. This information provides an insight into YouTube’s success. Of the twenty most viewed videos of ‘all time’, only one, “The Evolution of Dance”, was uploaded over five years ago. In fact, the majority (thirteen) of the top twenty videos were uploaded a year or less than a year ago. Fifteen of the top twenty are music videos, including the top four. Of this fifteen, three, including the number one spot, are Justin Bieber. Eminem, Rhianna, and Miley Cyrus all have two videos that make the cut.

Given the influx of recent music videos, one might presume this most viewed chart will continually change to reflect America’s most popular artists. While it is likely that new entries will change the chart in the not so distant future, knocking Bieber from the number one position will require upward of 536,728,981 views (by the time you read this, the number will be significantly higher). Currently the video has over 160,000,000 more views than the second place video (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”) and the Bieber video shows no sign of slowing down. The video also claims the title of ‘most discussed’ video, with 4,733,041comments to date—although, like the views, this number continuously rises. In fact, while viewing any widely discussed video on YouTube a bar appears at the top of the comments section which tracks how many more comments have been made since you started viewing the video.

With recent Bieber, Eminem, Rhianna, and Cyrus music videos all occupying multiple spots at the top of the chart, it is hardly surprising to learn the demographic watching these videos is females, aged 13 to 17.[[#_edn16|[xvi]]]16 Perhaps what is surprising is the prominence of this demographic in shaping the YouTube charts—it begs the question, of the 700 billion playbacks YouTube received in 2010, how many of these were teenage girls? Furthermore, if teenage girls are emerging as are YouTube’s key demographic, what does this mean for the mediology of YouTube? Is the site somehow geared more towards teenage girls, or are teenage girls hijacking the site?

The emergence of YouTube as a space for teenage girls to watch music videos inevitably raises questions surrounding feminism and the culture industry. While any Marxist or follower of the neo-Frankfurt school would, I am sure, have many unpleasant statements to make about Bieber’s top spot on the chart, the video does raise issues surrounding agency. I turn here to Ien Ang’s Watching Dallas, in which Ang criticizes the paternalistic approach of critical theory to the position (and representation) of women in society. Ang argues that the ideology of mass culture depicts women as “passive victims of the deceptive messages of soap operas”, whose pleasure is “totally disregarded”.[[#_edn17|[xvii]]]17 In contrast to the dominant belief that women are passive, uniformed, dupes (in the case of soap operas) or obsessed, screaming fanatics (in the case of Justin Biiber), Ang’s thesis suggests that the consumption of fiction and fantasy can function outside of the boundaries of reality.

Bieber’s video, as it exists on YouTube, functions as a contemporary form of watching Dallas. It provides a great deal of pleasure (even for the hater’s, who, like the ironic consumers of Dallas, are unable to negotiate a space outside of mass culture so must adopt an ironic position within mass culture perhaps by leaving a sardonic comment or contributing to the 1,340,967 ‘dislikes’). The pleasure of watching, Ang argues, occurs because reality is temporarily placed on hold. According to Ang, watching Dallas, or, in this case, Bieber,

[I]s a source of pleasure because it puts ‘reality’ in parenthesis, because it constructs imaginary solutions for real contradictions which in their fictional simplicity and their simple fictionality step outside the tedious complexity of the existing social relations of dominance and subordination.[[#_edn18|[xviii]]]18

Even outside of YouTube, the music video presents itself as fiction, but through YouTube the music video can easily progress to fantasy. Teenage girls (and everyone else with an internet connection, for that matter) can access Bieber when they want, where they want, and however many times they want. While Karim’s four features (recommendations, email links, a comment section, and an embedded video player) certainly helped make YouTube a successful site, its continued success is perhaps more due to the ease with which a user may access, play and (most importantly) replay videos. Unlike other mediums, fantasy on YouTube is not constricted by a weekly schedule, an awkward timeslot, or syndication contracts. The YouTube user chooses her own programming—if she wants, she can just schedule Justin Bieber on repeat.

external image justin-bieber-fans.jpg

This does not mean that the content of the fantasy, or the representation of women on YouTube is unimportant. Rather, it means that, “where cultural consumption is concerned, no fixed standard exists for gauging the ‘progressiveness’ of a fantasy. The personal may be political, but the personal and the political do not always go hand in hand.”[[#_edn19|[xix]]]19 Indeed, while closely related, consumption and representation are different matters—a mediological approach attempts to tackle the connection between the two spheres. Regardless, of the progressiveness of the Bieber fantasy, however, the mere abundance or excessive use (or both) of the female viewer on YouTube challenges assumptions that the Internet is a gendered (male) medium. While, in the early years of development, the Internet was a predominately male space, today American Internet users are equally divided along gender lines.[[#_edn20|[xx]]]20 Statements from Dale Spender, such as “the Internet is male territory”, and Margie Wylie, who claimed the Internet was “no place for women”, seem very outdated after examining the YouTube charts.[[#_edn21|[xxi]]]21

A reading of YouTube as an ideal medium for female fantasy must, however, take into account the plethora of offensive, immature, objectifying, and sexist videos and comments that exist on YouTube. As Michael Strangelove points out, “YouTube’s context is patriarchal capitalism and its misogynistic media culture.”[[#_edn22|[xxii]]]22 Investigating the consumption of videos as a space of female fantasy only addresses one aspect of YouTube. Delving deeper into the mediology of YouTube’s gender issues would involve questioning which sex uploads more videos, and of these videos which ones receive most hits? Mediology, to a certain extent, is a study of movement, thus a mediological approach to understanding YouTube videos as a site of gender liberation and/or subordination must analyze the video from its origin to its placement on Youtube to its consumption, and finally to its reception—a process which, on YouTube, may be eternal. This form of analysis, however, is concerned with content as opposed to the medium of YouTube itself, and may be reserved for another essay.


Mediums evolve continually over time. YouTube is neither a beginning nor an end to the methods of media consumption. To ignore, however, the differences between YouTube and other mediums is to ignore the impact of the medium on the message. While this ignorance has been a regular troupe throughout the progression of philosophy, the work of Debray in foraging a mediological path helps correct this hindrance. Mediology provides access to the structures of the medium as it relates to the sign and the reader. In the case of YouTube, which is an aggregator of content, this type of analysis is essential. Here, I have attempted to expose the diversity, power, and significance of the YouTube medium. Through civilian or news coverage of national tragedy YouTube emerges as a site for communal mourning and grief. Specifically, the medium of YouTube provides a space for mourning that other mediums cannot due to the high level of accessibility the user has to videos, but more significantly through the comments feature. The comments feature allows viewers to articulate their emotion in a way other mediums do not permit. The ability for all users to share experience with others while copying with the consequences of national tragedy creates a space similar to a memorial. Thus YouTube may be interpreted as a healing space. YouTube, however, is a multifunctional medium. Thus, in contrast to providing a space for grievance, YouTube also provides a space for fantasy. In a similar (though not identical) way to the televised soap opera, YouTube’s most watched video generates and fantasy space in which women (particularly adolescent women) can locate pleasure in a space outside of their constricting reality. Unlike televised programming, however, YouTube has far fewer restrictions on the when, where, and how of consumption. Thus YouTube becomes a medium of unlimited fantasy as well as one of remembrance and grief. The examples I have chosen are only two of many possible functions of YouTube. Further investigation into the many nuances of the medium would, I am certain, reveal a number of other diverse and unique functions of YouTube. In this essay I have attempted to move beyond previous content focused analysis of YouTube in order to prove that the meaning of a video’s content is always, in part, structured by the medium itself.

[[#_ednref1|[i]]]1 Michael Strangelove, Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010) p. 6.

[[#_ednref2|[ii]]]2Jean Burgess & Joshua Green, YouTube: Digital Media and Society Series (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) p. 2.

[[#_ednref3|[iii]]]3 Ibid., p. 2.

[[#_ednref4|[iv]]]4 Ibid., p. 2.

[[#_ednref5|[v]]]5 Regis Debray, Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms trans. Eric Rauth (London: Verso, 1996) p. 7.

[[#_ednref6|[vi]]]6 Regis Debray, "What is Mediology?" Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

[[#_ednref7|[vii]]]7 Ibid.

[[#_ednref8|[viii]]]8 Ibid.

[[#_ednref9|[ix]]]9 Ibid.

[[#_ednref10|[x]]]10 Lecture Notes: Introducing Mediology (Irvine), available from:

[[#_ednref11|[xi]]]11 Burgess & Green, p. 4.

[[#_ednref12|[xii]]]12 Pierre Bourdieu, “Distinction & the Aristocracy of Culture” in Culture Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader 3rd Edition ed. John Storey (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2006) p. 473.

[[#_ednref13|[xiii]]]13 Ronaldinhollew, 2010, available from:

[[#_ednref14|[xiv]]]14 JWBlottin, 2010, available from:

[[#_ednref15|[xv]]]15 Burgess & Green, p. 2.

[[#_ednref16|[xvi]]]16 YouTube Charts, most viewed of all time, available from: (demogrphic data available from individual videos).

[[#_ednref17|[xvii]]]17 Ien Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (London: Methuen, 1985) p. 118-9.

[[#_ednref18|[xviii]]]18 Ibid., p. 135.

[[#_ednref19|[xix]]]19 Ibid., 136.

[[#_ednref20|[xx]]]20 Strangelove, p. 97.

[[#_ednref21|[xxi]]]21 Ibid., p. 97.

[[#_ednref22|[xxii]]]22 Ibid., p. 84.


Ang, Ien, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (London: Methuen, 1985).

Baudrillard, Jean, “The Precession of Simulacra” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture a Reader 3rd Edition ed. John Storey (Essex: Pearson Education Ltd., 2006).

Bourdieu, Pierre, “Distinction & the Aristocracy of Culture” in Culture Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader 3rd Edition ed. John Storey (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2006).

Burgess, Jean & Green, Joshua, YouTube: Digital Media and Society Series (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009).

Debray, Regis, Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms trans. Eric Rauth (London: Verso, 1996).

Debray, Regis, "What is Mediology?" Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Strangelove, Michael, Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).

Storey, John Culture Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction 4th Edition (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2006).
Lecture Notes: Introducing Mediology (Irvine), available from:


“2nd Plane WTC”, 2006, available from:

“Devil Face in the Twin Towers”, 2008, available from:

Justin Bieber - Baby ft. Ludacris”, 2010, available from:

“Live TV Footage/Coverage of 9/11 (Second Plane hit, Collapse of Towers) World Trade Center”, 2010, comments page, available from:

“Michael Jackson’s ghost… spotted again?”, 2009, available from:

“September 11, 2001 - As It Happened - The South Tower Attack”, 2007, available from:

YouTube Charts, available from: