Control Issues: YouTube’s new blocking features

TechCrunch reported this morning that YouTube has added two new video-blocking features to their arsenal for sponsoring partners.

Youtubes new blocking features

Youtube's new blocking features

The first is a button that allows to easy blocking of duplicate content. By selecting it, partners can automatically block other users from uploading another version of the same content. The second is a geo-blocking tool that effectively allows partners to choose where each video can and can’t be seen based on geopolitical borders (or, more importantly, geographic markets).

While I understand that the move is meant to appease anxious copyright holders, the whole thing still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. These new features might make who has access to content and the context of viewing much easier to control, but doesn’t address the question of what the control is good for in the first place.

The entire point of posting content on YouTube is to get it viewed, linked to, circulated. To generate buzz, conversation, to insert it into popular cultural discourse and make it spreadable. And, simply put, things can’t become spreadable if you don’t let people spread it.

In the paper If it Doesn’t Spread, it’s Dead which I co-wrote with Henry Jenkins and my C3 colleagues Ana Domb and Joshua Green, we explained that content doesn’t spread itself like a virus. Rather, people pass it to one another to communicate things, and in doing so, often have to replicate, repurpose, and reframe the content. However,

Such repurposing doesn’t necessarily blunt or distort the goals of the original communicator. Rather, it may allow the message to reach new constituencies where it would otherwise have gone unheard. C3 affiliated researcher Grant McCracken (2005) points towards such a model when he suggests that the word consumer should be replaced by a new term, multiplier, to reflect the fact consumers expand the potential meanings that get attached to a brand by inserting it into a range of unpredicted contexts of use.

By blocking duplicate versions, content creators are in fact potentially subverting their own interests, blocking out the potential for new markets and constituencies and hindering enthusiastic content promoters that could help broaden their audience.

Moreover, as I found in my research on the rich online circulation community around East Asian TV dramas, with the sheer scope and volume of content available online, even in a niche subject, sites of third-party aggregation and curation are crucial nodes in the circulation process. With the amount of content available, consumers need these site to help filter and organize content according to their interests, and copyright holders can’t always anticipate what the affinity categories might be. By not allowing people to duplicate and curate content, they’re crippling a key activity that helps promote their content.

And finally, nothing makes less sense than geo-blocking. Timed releases into international markets is an invitation for rich unauthorized markets to rise. The transnational flow of media is more and more in hands of audiences. People are coming together to select, reproduce, and distribute the not only collective, but radically collaborative imaginaries that they inhabit. And it’s changing the way media control works, and no one-click feature is going to stop that.

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  1. Scott Walker says:

    Control, by definition, limits accessibility and exposure. One has to wonder, then, what the ultimate goal is for a creator who voluntarily limits the audience of their content (not to mention the unintended consequences you refer to above).

    I hate taking the position that “it’s broken, so let’s just live it” regarding piracy and control over digital content, but the reality is that content creators simply can’t control their content when it makes its way to the Internet. The Internet is a distribution channel unlike anything we’ve seen before. As Cory Doctorow puts it, the net is one massive copying machine. There just aren’t enough hours, dollars, and personnel to shut down every illegal copy or use of copyrighted works.

    Consumers are dictating the terms of both consumption and use. Producers can either work with existing tools (e.g., Internet) and the social customs (consumer remixing, reusing, repurposing, redistributing) or against them. I’m guessing it’s a lot more effective to work with them.


    Xiaochang Li Reply:

    Hey Scott,

    Absolutely, the continued emphasis on control is a lingering product of old models that operate under power relations between producers and consumers that just don’t hold up anymore. I sympathize with the struggle content producers and copyright holders have in tracking, measuring, and ultimately monetizing the popular spread of their content, but control really isn’t the way. I mean, sure, if you keep your content from spread, it sure does become easier to see where it goes. Namely, nowhere.


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