Implications of YouTube’s Rickroll take-down

By | February 25, 2010

So yesterday, the interwebs were in a brief uproar when it was found that the original Rickrolling video had been taken down for Terms of Use Violation. Google identified the mistake and restored the video, but those handfull of hours during which a major artifact of internet culture was missing revealed some interesting things about our digital media landscape.

It’s not (just) a question of technology

One of the biggest issues brought forth by this takedown (and many other “mistaken” ones likes it, such as Viacom’s “accidental” silencing of racism protest) is that these incidents aren’t just a question of technological oversights. The reveal an industry build on legal and economic structures that refuse to adapt to cultural change. Google’s apology email is full of passive voice — videos are “mistakenly removed” and accounts “mistakenly suspended.” With all the talk of users, flagging systems, it quickly becomes an artful dodging of accountability. It makes it seem like it was a blameless incident, a technological snafu outside anyone’s control.

But it’s important that we don’t mistake “lack of intent” with “lack of culpability.” I don’t really blame Google — their actions are responding to IP policies that equate promoting open source to being a rogue state. As Mike Masnick points out, the problem isn’t that something fell through the cracks of a the tech system in place to identify content violations quickly. The problem is the demands of that kind of speed, the kind of “take down first, ask dodge questions later” attitude that pervades the creative industries.

Technology, and third-parties like Google, are just convenient and blamelessly neutral scapegoats in the real digital divide — the chasm between social use of technologies and industrial control over them.

Takedowns take away more than just content

Another thing that the outcry around the take-down makes us realize is that the video itself is just one part of the cultural artifact. After all, it’s not like we couldn’t still watch a duplicate video on YouTube. But what we lost that was more significant than the video were the comments, the tags, the response links, even the viewcount. The metadata and paratexts that document the significance and development of the cultural phenomenon. The video is just the book cover — the real meat of the story was the record of how people watched it. That was why this particular takedown was so outrageous. What was removed was something infinitely more unique and scarce than some video. What was removed was a rich cultural document that no one should own the IP to.

One man’s culture is another man’s spam

A final interesting aspect is the fact that the takedown wasn’t an IP issue, but a user-flagging issue. Unsurprising, perhaps, because if you’re not in on the joke, a lot of internet memes look pretty much just like spam: incomprehensible and weirdly persistent. What this reveals to us is something that those fighting the high culture/pop culture divide have been reminding us forever: that culture is ultimately wholly subjective and deeply contextual.

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