Monday, 2 December 2013

Defining YouTube as Social Media

In this post Chareen Snelson, Ed.D. considers YouTube as Social Media...

Defining Social Media in General

The discussion surrounding the definition of “social media” brings to light just how challenging it can be to precisely define something that we think we understand until we try to explain it. For many of us, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube spring to mind during discussions of social media. However, these are specific manifestations of a broader phenomena. From my perspective, social media represents a set of technologies that allow people to share content and make connections with others online. Although my perspective may capture the essence of what I think social media is, it may or may not be in agreement with what others think. One way to explore this is with a simple search phrase in Google using, “define: social media.” The results of this search reveal a plethora of definitions. One of the simplest definitions for social media shown as a dictionary entry near the top of the search results is, “websites and applications used for social networking.” Scrolling down we find that the Urban Dictionary has a rather humorous definition for social media based on the functionality of various platforms. For example, “Facebook-I like doughnuts,” “Twitter-I'm eating #doughnuts,” and “Youtube-Here I am eating doughnuts.”  (See:

I regard Wikipedia as a nice launching point for quests such as this, so I took a few minutes to explore their rather lengthy article on the topic of social media. There I found a quoted definition from Kaplan and Haenlein (2010), who define social media as “...a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content” (p. 61). The Kaplan and Haenlein definition has also been quoted by van Dijck (2013) and possibly others. I rather like this definition since it has found its way into the peer-reviewed scholarly literature. Whether or not it is the final word on how we define social media remains to be seen.

Defining YouTube as Social Media

At first glance, the attributes of YouTube seem to align well with Kaplan and Haenlein's definition of social media. With YouTube we have a group of internet-based applications that support the creation and exchange of user-generated video. We can easily upload our videos, create our own channels, connect with other YouTube users, or share videos across other social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Yet, some of the core attributes of YouTube are changing, which seem to threaten some of the social aspects of interest to users and researchers. 

My perspective on this topic is that of an educator who teaches a course on YouTube and digital video production and a researcher who uses YouTube as a data source. My involvement with YouTube has been quite active since its early days. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the entire history of YouTube or my evolution through teaching and researching about it. However, I would like to share a couple of observations about YouTube and some of the changes that may impact how it fits in the social-media landscape.

1. The Changing Nature of “Community” on YouTube
YouTube has always defined itself as a “community” with tools that support interaction among its users (YouTube, n.d.). When I first started teaching courses on YouTube in 2008 my students could add each other as friends and they could easily contact each other privately through the YouTube messaging system. Back then, YouTube seemed to be more about videos and friend connections. In 2011, YouTube merged the friends tool with the subscriptions tool (Scott, 2011). We could no longer have friends on YouTube, only subscribers who we communicated with via comments or private messages. It seemed as though the idea of community was beginning to change.

In early November of 2013 YouTube implemented a dramatic change to how it handles comments (Janakiram & Zunger,2013). The comment system is now integrated with Google+. Part of the reason for this was apparently to deal with the plague of hateful, racist, and vulgar commentary that had been going for the eight plus years of YouTube’s existence. Responses to the new comment system varied from positive to very negative (See the comments posted in response to Janakiram & Zunger,2013). My observations of the switch revealed some rather startling changes. For the first few hours all of the comments were missing from my YouTube channel. Later the comments returned, but with changes to the functionality. I could no longer reply to comments posted prior to the switch, nor could I reply to some of the comments posted after the switch due to some sort of permissions problem. My YouTube inbox displayed a notification that read, “Most comment notifications will now be delivered by Google+ and not to your inbox.” The comments that have been posted to my videos now appear under a “fans” section of the community area of my YouTube account. Over time our former YouTube “friends” have become first “subscribers” and now our “fans” in the YouTube community. This is a very curious change that makes me wonder how we will define YouTube community or how Google+ might take over as the social platform for YouTube.

2. The Changing Availability of “Social Data” on YouTube
The second observation I would like to briefly mention is how the availability of social data has changed over time on YouTube. What I mean by social data is information about the people who comprise the YouTube community. This issue becomes apparent when using YouTube as a data source for social media research projects. In the past, I have used publically available YouTube videos, comments, user profiles, and viewer demographics in my research studies. As already mentioned, comments are changing, which may impact how we access or use them for research. User and viewer demographics are also vanishing from YouTube. As of the time of this writing, we cannot visit a YouTube channel to find out the age or country of origin for the owner of the channel like we used to be able to do. Viewer statistics, which are available under each video player, are now stripped of gender, age, and country of origin information. Whether this information returns in some other form remains to be seen. Perhaps we will learn more about the people we interact with in the YouTube community via Google+.

In conclusion, I would like to return to the idea of defining social media. I have to wonder if we can go beyond broad definitions that encompass a wide variety of applications or practices, which can change or evolve at any time. Perhaps in the end we will find that social media is a spectrum rather than a single definition. I look forward to further discussion on this topic as we collectively grapple with the definition of social media.


Janakiram, N., & Zunger, Y. (2013, November 6). Turning comments into conversations that matter to you [web log post]. Official YouTube Blog. Retrieved from

Kaplan, A.M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business Horizons, 53(1), 59-68. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2009.09.003

Scott, J. (2011, December 15). YouTube friends and subscriptions are merging, kind of [web log post]. REELSEO. Retrieved from

van Dijck, J. (2013). The culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media. New York: NY. Oxford University Press.

YouTube (n.d.). Community. YouTube Playbook. Retrieved from


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