#YouTubeBlack Research Includes Undergrad Researchers

During Purdue’s first virtual Undergraduate Research Conference in Spring 2020, James Darschewski and Nathan (Nate) Garrison presented the project “#YouTubeBlack and the Politics of Platform and Promotion” under the research mentorship of Dr. Faithe Day, a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation and African American Studies at the time of the Conference.

Screen capture of “YouTube rarely promotes Black YouTube stars even during Black History Month” by Akilah Hughes.

In 2015, an article titled “YouTube rarely promotes Black YouTube stars even during Black History Month,” was published. The article called out YouTube’s lack of diverse representation in the promotion and recognition of its content creators by the journalist and YouTuber Akilah Hughes. Almost a year after she had published this article, YouTube flew out 100 different Black content creators to an event titled “#YouTubeBlack” in response to the criticisms surrounding YouTube’s failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. They created a series of workshops, mentoring sessions, critical reflection, and plans for how to navigate being Black on YouTube and “the event was lauded [as] an important and necessary step in the right direction,” Dr. Day said. This article began much of the movement on this topic. Dr. Day’s research primarily focuses on YouTube and the politics of social media and she was inspired to start this research because a great deal of “the research and writing about YouTube and the online sphere assumes a homogeneous understanding of the space.”

Dr. Day centers her research around Black and queer communities and noticed that many people were not writing about the YouTube she was familiar with  due to the “cultural specificities embedded within the various publics and counterpublics within the platform.” She believes that each individual brings different experiences and understanding to online platforms and that “it is important to recognize what role one’s individual standpoint as a researcher and participant plays in the discussion and discursive analysis of online cultures and community.”

The project presented during this year’s undergraduate research conference looks at the relationship between YouTube and Black content creators through the #YouTubeBlack movement. James and Nate gathered information on one hundred videos such as the number of views, likes, dislikes, comments, release dates, categories, descriptions, and subscribers. Then, based on this data, they ranked the videos. Through this process, they were able to respond to the following questions:

“What are the norms of recommendation and promotion on YouTube?

“What is the logic behind the popularity of specific YouTube Videos? and

“What are the strategies that content creators are using to increase their visibility within the platform?”

“We felt that this project was important because Black content creators have been fighting against the YouTube search algorithm, making it harder for them to gain subscribers and views, which in turn gives them more publicity,” James said. The driving force behind this project was YouTube’s suppression of Black content creators and a need to understand why they are not experiencing an equitable amount of promotion or channel growth.

James and Nate joined the Critical Data Studies learning community in Fall 2019 and started on this project with Dr. Day in January 2020. “By participating in undergraduate research, I learned how much I enjoy data collection and analysis and plan on studying data science at Purdue partially because of my experience with this project,” James said.

When asked what she enjoys most about mentoring undergraduate students, Dr. Day responded that she enjoys “watching and guiding the intellectual development and inquisitiveness of new generations of scholars, researchers, and practitioners.” She believes that as a scholar of digital media, culture, and society, it is important for her to stay up to date on any and all changes and development in society and technology. By engaging with undergraduate students, she learns how people from different backgrounds understand the online and offline world. Specifically, she states that “Because the discussions that I have with students are so fruitful and generative for me, I hope that my mentoring also serves as an important jumping off point for them to think more critically about society and culture.”

“I think that the most surprising findings from the [research] has come in contextualizing the project in this current moment,” Dr. Day said. Considering the recent corporate responses to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Dr. Day has started to think more deeply about the corporate use of hashtags like #YouTubeBlack. Dr. Day discusses the concept of “green-washing” and “pink-washing” in which corporations use the imagery/color/language of being green to appear more environmentally friendly and pink to make a gender-neutral product pink to appeal to more women. She says that with the promotion of #YouTubeBlack, “many companies co-opt the language and imagery of social justice  . . .[using] Black Squares and solidarity statements, which don’t always address their history or make plans or steps towards restorative justice, almost serves as a kind of marketing motivated ‘Black-Washing.’”

“Since the conference was virtual, my participation was limited since I was working remotely on the project,” James said. He added that preparing for the virtual conference was interesting as he was finally able to see all of the research come together. “I did enjoy seeing everyone’s hard work in the conference and felt that everyone did an excellent job both preparing and presenting for this conference.”

James’s advice for students starting in undergraduate research is to find a topic that they would like to explore since that greatly impacts the experience of undergraduate research. “Listen to what your research mentor has to say in terms of how to conduct research, as they have a general idea of what the data should look like and how to present it.”

Moving forward, Dr. Day believes that it is important for Black content creators to continue creating on or off YouTube. Many of the Black content creators that she has once studied on YouTube have moved to their own websites and platforms which better support their work financially and creatively.  “As YouTube leverages demonetization and content moderation against content creators from intersectionality marginalized communities, it will be important for Black content creators in particular to understand and critique the limitations of corporate platforms.”

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