YouTube as a Harbinger

“For electronic publishers, there are similarities between this phenomenon and the proliferation of desktop publishing of printed material a generation earlier.”

Internet sites such as YouTube represent important changes in the way video content, including news, will be delivered in the future. Viewers can access news on demand and play a more active role in the distribution channel by forwarding video clips to other people. In this study we focused on factors influencing viewing and sharing news videos. However, the growing role of the user in the distribution process has important implications for anyone engaged in electronic publishing. For electronic publishers, there are similarities between this phenomenon and the proliferation of desktop publishing of printed material a generation earlier. Inexpensive video recorders and cameras, coupled with easy-to-use editing software and the ability to deliver videos online, have democratized the creation and distribution of video. Mainstream media companies can no longer exert total control over the distribution of their own media content. It’s too soon to understand the long-term impact of this change on news and information viewership. It does suggest that viewing and sharing news videos are not mutually exclusive and that the number of gatekeepers is as infinite as the number of electronic water coolers around which viewers gather to chat.

We found important links between viewing and sharing news on YouTube and users’ motives for these two activities. Studies of television news viewing have suggested that information seeking and entertainment are important motives for watching television news (Perse, 1992). We found this to be the case with YouTube as well. These results suggest, at least for the young adults in this study, that motives for watching traditional and comedy-related news videos were similar to ones identified in previous news-viewing research. However, the types of videos available seem to have made a difference, too. Those who watched more traditional news content wanted information; those who watched news in comedy and satire formats wanted entertainment. This may answer the critics who are concerned that some viewers may not understand the difference between news and “news.” Participants in this study indicated they can tell one from the other. An optimist might see the results as support for the position that people are less likely to be swayed by the satire of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. A pessimist might point out that people still absorb information and form opinions about the news from the satirical programs—even when viewers tune in to be entertained.

These results also may support previous uses-and-gratifications arguments that people can use different communication channels as functional (Rosengren & Windahl, 1972) or co-equal (Rubin & Rubin, 1985) alternatives for satisfying their needs and desires. What researchers should examine more closely in future research is whether the opportunity to view mediated fare on demand, as permitted by YouTube, makes YouTube the preferred channel for such fare for some viewers. The on-demand nature of YouTube may make it more attractive than the traditional media for those viewers seeking the immediate satisfaction that instant access provides.

It is important to understand the nuances behind the viewing choices in this study. Factor analysis revealed that the entertainment motive stressed its leisure components, while items that emphasized the economy and convenience of information acquisition characterized the information motive.

The results also suggest that viewers may be driven by one set of motives for watching news clips on YouTube, but have a different set of motives for sharing them. The need for interpersonal expression was a predictor for sharing both categories of content. A nuanced reading of the motive is important here, too. The factors comprising the interpersonal motive stressed the need to express one’s self and to have a voice in the marketplace of information.

Uses and gratifications theory posits that viewer personality traits should be accounted for in studies of media use and effects. Our analysis of YouTube viewer motivation supports this. Specifically, disinhibition and thrill seeking were negative predictors of sharing comedy news content, while experience seeking, leisure entertainment, and interpersonal expression motivations were significant positive predictors. This suggests a rather informal way of sharing videos for entertainment and interpersonal expression among those who may be seeking experience, but otherwise are non–sensation seekers.

“Viewers of news are now part of the distribution chain.”

These findings are significant for media professionals and researchers alike. Video sites like YouTube give news organizations the opportunity to reach audiences through a secondary market of mouse clicks and forwarded e-mails, and viewers of news are now part of the distribution chain. The ability to tease out the motivations for that activity can play a part in identifying opinion leaders in the social networking spaces who will be attractive for media companies to know. The changes in video distribution are important for researchers also, as they struggle to understand the changing relationship between mass communication and interpersonal communication functions—particularly for media content that’s delivered on demand and through new social networks. The predictive strength of the motives found in this study suggest that the uses-and-gratifications approach, even though it emerged in a simpler media time, is still useful for understanding audiences’ media use and the confluence of background characteristics and audience activity that impact their use, and ultimately, the effects of that use.

Limitations of the Study and Future Research

Clearly these results have to be interpreted with caution. As we suggested earlier, YouTube, despite claims of a large number of users and the proliferation of content on the site, is a relatively new phenomenon with which users are still becoming acquainted. Thus, claims of its uses and effects for the general population cannot be made with confidence. Our sample of college students was not a group of heavy YouTube users and they had not yet developed strong motivations for using it. But it does provide a benchmark for future studies when YouTube becomes a more familiar medium.

Our results from this convenience sample should not be generalized to other populations of YouTube users. Future research should test these preliminary observations by including additional measures of audience activity to get a clearer picture of how active or passive YouTube use is. Research that assesses the level of viewing intention, attention, and involvement while viewing, and the amount of post-viewing interaction stimulated via sharing, is needed to evaluate use on an interactivity-passivity continuum.

“Getting information into the hands of the opinion leaders is important for the dissemination of mediated fare.”

In addition, further research should examine the role of a wider array of social and psychological background characteristics that will help researchers identify additional factors that could more fully explain how YouTube is used. The measures for this study were taken from prior research of television viewing and Internet use. Valid survey questions and measurement scales need to be developed for studying interactive and social-networked media. The existence of the social networks needs to be explored further, too. We know that getting information into the hands of the opinion leaders is important for the dissemination of mediated fare. Do YouTube users who tend to seek traditional news information share it for different interpersonal reasons than those who seek out more comedic news fare? Do those who are opinion leaders with respect to traditional news fare, in turn, tend to be recipients of comedic news or other entertainment fare from those who seek out that type of content? This study did not answer these questions, but suggests a framework for doing so.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the results of this study and the theoretical framework used should be considered to examine media use in other electronic-publishing contexts. We focused on YouTube because of its immense popularity and phenomenal rate of adoption by users. But the on-demand nature of YouTube is a salient feature in a host of other electronic-publishing contexts, all of which are new. Blogs, wikis, and user-generated comments posted to news stories from the traditional media are just some examples of this phenomenon in the printed (written) world. Photo sharing sites such as Flickr and audio and podcast aggregating sites such as iTunes expand the list to include other media. YouTube itself is not the only video-sharing Web site. Other sites include videos on the social networking MySpace and Facebook and on lesser-known sites such as Bolt and SingingFool. Each of these sites represents a form of electronic publishing in which users can connect with each other and create, edit, and share their own content. We believe that these phenomena expand the reach of electronic publishers by adding new creators, new distribution channels, and new messages to the mix. These facts make it all the more necessary to examine user-generated electronic publishing from as part of the electronic publishing landscape and to understand the background characteristics, motives, and use patterns of those who are part of the process.

Table 1: Primary factor loadings of motives
Factor 1 Factor 2 Factor 3 Factor 4
Because it amuses me .890 .172 .109 .051
Because it’s enjoyable .877 .122 .128 .024
Because it’s entertaining .877 .096 .097 .060
Because it’s fun to play around and check things .869 .089 .105 .037
When I have nothing better to do .837 .168 .051 .116
Because it passes the time away particularly when I’m bored .817 .159 .161 .151
Because it gives me something to occupy my time .804 .196 .204 .046
Just because it’s there .774 .230 .179 .140
Because I like to use it .765 .236 .277 .072
Because I can use it any time .705 .256 .326 .128
To see what’s out there .699 .193 .390 −.070
Because it’s just a habit, just something to do .679 .213 .260 .073
Because it’s something to do when friends come over .646 .339 .178 −.068
Because I can view material in videos online, and I don’t have to pay for them .642 .144 .345 −.024
Because it’s exciting .641 .314 .271 .186
Because it’s thrilling .614 .350 .348 .176
To belong to a group with the same interests as mine .121 .759 .171 .262
To participate in discussions .181 .757 .224 −.106
To give my input .258 .759 .189 −.103
To communicate with family and friends .158 .749 .137 .046
Because I enjoy answering other people’s questions .192 .724 .105 .280
To show others encouragement .218 .703 .125 .245
Because I can express myself freely .258 .665 .251 .154
To meet new people .046 .639 .029 .385
To help others .178 .624 .341 .161
So I can talk to other people about what’s going on .326 .608 .294 .047
To get more points of view .289 .601 .459 .088
Because it provides an interesting way to do research .239 .299 .724 .214
To keep up with current issues or events .196 .284 .720 .158
To get information for free .419 .329 .650 −.093
To search for information .318 .197 .647 .180
Because it’s easier to get information .452 .328 .625 −.076
Because it makes me feel less lonely .186 .398 .167 .756
So I won’t have to be alone .120 .447 .174 .716
Eigenvalue 10.49 6.82 3.87 1.81
% variance expained 30.84% 20.06% 11.38% 5.34%
Mean 2.68 1.35 1.83 1.26
SD 1.12 0.58 0.91 0.63
Cronbach’s alpha .96 .92 .87 r=.74
Note: Factor 1=leisure entertainment; factor 2=interpersonal expression; factor 3=information seeking and factor 4=companionship.
Table 2: Summary of final results when regressing news video viewing and sharing on audience background and motive variables
Traditional News Viewing Comedy News Viewing Traditional News Sharing Comedy News Sharing
Predictor variables Final β Final β Final β Final β
Step 1 Age .02 −.04 .05 −.03
Gender −.01 −.18** −.01 −.05
Step 2 Social activity .12 .09 .10 −.00
Interpersonal interaction .04 .09 .06 .09
Locus of control −.08 −.10 −.10 −.06
Thrill seeking −.02 −.06 −.07 −.12*
Disinhibition .03 −.02 .06 −.19**
Experience seeking .01 .08 .07 .18**
Boredom susceptibility −.03 .02 −.04 .06
Step 3 Motives
Leisure entertainment −.12 .32*** −.10 .30***
Information seeking .25** .04 .13 .06
Interpersonal expression .08 .15 .22* .28**
Companionship .13 −.08 −.03 −.08
Note: All betas are final betas on the last step of the regression. N = 291.
*p < .05
**p < .01
***p < .001.
Traditional news viewing (R = .38, R2 = .14, F(13, 274) = 3.44, p < .001)
Comedy news viewing (R = .55, R2 = .30, F(13, 274) = 9.16, p < .001)
Traditional news sharing (R = .34, R2 = .11 F(13, 274) = 2.67, p < .01)
Comedy news sharing (R = .57, R2 = .32, F(13, 273) = 9.83, p < .001).

Gary Hanson is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kent State University and a 25-year veteran of television news. From 1984 to 1997 he was News Director of WKBN, the CBS television affiliate in Youngstown, Ohio. He was Freedom and Responsibility Chair of the RTV-J Division of AEJMC, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, representing 3,800 broadcast and cable journalists around the world. His work with RTNDA included the chairmanship of the Education Liaison Committee, serving as the liaison between the industry association and the nation’s radio and television journalism education community. He won three National Association of Television Arts and Sciences Regional EMMY awards in the Cleveland region for his work as principal reporter on the WKBN-TV public affairs broadcast “Newswatch Sunday.” Prior to joining WKBN, he was news director of KXON-TV in Mitchell, South Dakota. He began his television career at WDAZ-TV in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1971. He earned a B.A. in Speech from the University of North Dakota in 1973. He can be reached at glhanson@kent.edu.

Paul Haridakis is an associate professor of Communication Studies at Kent State University. He teaches and conducts research in the areas of freedom of speech, media law and policy, and media uses and effects. His research is cross-disciplinary, appearing in journals and books in the fields of law, communication, political science, psychology, and justice studies. He can be reached at pharidak@kent.edu.