Designing Media - Alexandra Juhasz

This is the third interview in Chapter 3 in my new book, Designing Media

Alexandra Juhasz, October 2008

Alexandra Juhasz is a professor of media studies at Pitzer College in California, where she teaches video production, film and video theory. She has given a lot of thought to the social impact of YouTube. She teaches a class both about and on YouTube, studying it with her students to try to understand the cultural implications of the new level of connectivity for video. During the run-up to the 2009 election, she was looking at how the broad circulation of people-produced media was affecting the outcome, feeling optimistic about the positive impact for the Obama campaign. She is more critical about other aspects of the emergence of YouTube, disappointed that the potential for democratization is not fulfilled.

MediaPraxisme, Class Website

With her background in political activism, Alexandra thinks a lot about counterculture and what it feels like to view mainstream society from the outside. Her work has been committed to people who are critical of society and who occupy that analytical or oppositional space comfortably. She finds the idea of popularity extremely troubling because in her eyes it only offers a limited and juvenile way to organize life. She came to YouTube as a scholar and maker of activist media, wondering why she felt instinctively repelled by the YouTube experience. She says: The invisibility of the underlayer on YouTube is of great concern to me. Because the search function is so poor and the site always pushes the most popular into your face, you probably will only rarely see the people who are expressing alternative viewpoints. It’s not exactly a flattening of culture. It’s like there’s two layers, really. And they don’t ever speak to each other. Her analysis indicates that YouTube is organized by popularity, keeping what she calls “NicheTube” almost invisible, and she sees popularity as a limited and even juvenile way to organize life. She thinks that the design is structured to cause people to connect as quickly and unpredictably as possible from one thing to another, in order to maximize exposure to ads. She sees this as a viable business model but not a viable way to support democracy, culture, art, or community.

Learning from YouTube, Midterm Summary

I interviewed Alexandra before Chad Hurley, and was surprised that she believes so strongly that YouTube is a failure. Having had time to consider both interviews at leisure, I think the difference in point of view reveals a quandary about design at the platform level. For the entrepreneurs of new media enterprises, large scale is one of the most difficult results to achieve. It is usually gained by a combination of timing and a design approach that provides a platform where growth can happen unchecked, coming from the activities of the content creators rather than the platform designers. This limits design control for the original entrepreneurs, making it inevitable that all sorts of unexpected consequences will emerge.