Video made the political star

15 02 2009

published in Nouse, May 13th 2008

Jennifer O’Mahony looks at the students who have harnessed the potential of YouTube as a means of campaigning

We all know YouTube as the site where you can find videos of pandas sneezing, or of idiotic teenagers filming themselves falling off skateboard ramps.

However, a new generation of students and activists are harnessing the potential of YouTube not as mindless entertainment but as an immediate and effective medium for campaigning and raising awareness on student issues and societies.

Derwent College Chair Oliver Lester posted a 7 minute video on YouTube that showed the appalling lack of safety, hygiene and living space available in the kitchens of E and F blocks of his college.

It highlighted the impossibility for 16 students to cook on a Baby Belling microwave/hob together with the danger of overcrowded kitchens. The video featured appliances balanced precariously on shelves and underlined the expense the students involved incurred in constantly eating out, given that cooking was a practical nightmare. After posting the video and promoting it on Facebook, it became the 3rd highest rated link for people searching for “Derwent College” on Google.

Lester decided to take action after living in Derwent himself and seeing none of the facilities change, despite promises to the contrary, when he became a second year. He says he was attracted to YouTube after traditional methods failed to make a difference “writing letters just takes too long to achieve anything, whereas making a film means that it will be viewed by far more people.

“I made half an hour of film in the block, edited it and it was on YouTube by midnight. Within 3 or 4 days the persistent mould had been deep cleaned and there will be a complete renovation of cooking facilities over the summer.”

York students have not used YouTube solely to campaign on specific issues, but have also promoted their societies or personal candidacies in elections on the site.

James Townsend, President of the New Generation Society (NGS), uses YouTube as a way of putting across what his society stands for. He says: “YouTube puts politics into the mainstream. Young people might not choose to watch an hour long news bulletin, but they might stumble across something on YouTube which really inspires them. The mix between people falling over and musings on the future of the health service makes it all more accessible.” The NGS posts videos of speaker events to maximise exposure. When guests like Sir Crispin Tickell, the famous climatologist, come to speak to the society they are filmed with YouTube and Facebook in mind.

In recent YUSU and college chair elections, students have posted videos of themselves explaining their policies on camera as a way of interacting quickly and directly with a large group of potential voters. When Laura Payne campaigned for YUSU President, she posted a video on YouTube to highlight the issues she wanted to raise, and to encourage undecided students to pick her for the top post with a personal message.

Similarly, Joe Clarke, who went on to become Goodricke College Chair, posted a video of himself touring the college and proclaiming that if won the position then events would no longer take place in the “school disco” venue of Goodricke Hall.

What is clear is that this kind of campaign can be extremely effective in getting traditionally reluctant figures to listen to the concerns of students. Lester says: “I got emails from the University management at the top level, and they were angrier that they weren’t aware of the problems, other than with my video.”

The democratic nature of YouTube means that anyone with a camera and an internet connection can use it to campaign or promote, and it is this grassroots emphasis that makes the video-sharing site such an asset to activism. In contrast to most direct forms of action it actually yields results.

Jeff Jarvis, the MediaGuardian columnist, summarises the power of YouTube with the typical language of an activist and firebrand: “We are watching the seeds of a revolution sprout right before our very eyes”.

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