How YouTube Keeps Dormant Fandoms Alive

by Keidra Chaney

I’ve previously written about YouTube’s role as a community-curated archive of television shows, commercials and music videos – it’s an interesting example of how a social network has evolved into something drastically different than its intended use, based on the collective actions of online communities.

But the video-sharing social network also plays a different role: as the first point of pop culture reference for curious fans looking to catch up on a long-cancelled TV show or a band’s discography. Fans rely on YouTube for background on, say, a 70’s classic rock song played in Guitar Hero or finding where a an 80’s film reference is from on Family Guy. Check the comments of a YouTube video for Faith No More’s 1992 song Midlife Crisis, for example, and you’ll see comments like this from fans who weren’t even alive when the song came out:

In other cases, YouTube gives an opportunity for new fans of a “legacy” fandom to catch up on its history, or – in the case of cancelled (and possibly reborn) soap operas like All My Children – to reminisce about episodes in the past. Remember Leo and Greenlee? Hell yeah you do!

Many fans use YouTube to keep fandoms alive, while remaining one step ahead of YouTube’s Copyright Police. When the YouTube channel of popular fan-made parody show Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series was shut down by YouTube for copyright infringement, fans of the show took it upon themselves to re-upload the episodes and keep the show accessible.

YouTube seems like an unlikely location for an multimedia fandom encyclopedia, but it’s probably the only location where such a function is even possible online. Think about it: YouTube is currently the Internet’s second largest search engine – bigger than even Yahoo and Bing – and the Internet’s second most trafficked website. Not to mention, its interface makes for easy social sharing and embeds. The playlist functionality makes it easy for content uploaders to group and categorize videos. I’ve seen entire seasons of TV episodes, albums and more uploaded to YouTube playlists. And clever labeling of metadata makes it relatively easy to locate obscure content – if you know what you’re looking for.

It’s YouTube’s unique combination of platform functionality and social community that makes this, a tech startup probably couldn’t recreate this even if they tried – mostly because of the copyright headache involved, but also because YouTube’s got the algorithmic might of Google behind it. And while YouTube has longed struggled against its reputation as a copyright infringement gray area, YouTube is so popular and relied upon for that very reason. It’s the place to go when looking for an obscure TV or movie clip, or to verify the lyrics to a song or to see that buzzed about award show clip 20 minutes after it happens.

So is there a solution to this tension? Should there be a solution? I’m not sure. To take away YouTube’s function as a living multimedia archive would definitely take away a big part of what makes the Internet delightful, and indirectly helps content creators, I think, because it’s an easy way to attract new fans, especially for TV shows/films/musicians who aren’t currently in the public eye. Companies like Vevo and have adopted a live-an-let-live approach to YouTube, by housing content there that’s also paired with ads. But fan communities are nimble, and the large ecosystem of uploaded, fan-curated content on YouTube has grown leaps and bounds over any content owner’s ability to police it all.

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