YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool

JSpyerEditor’s note:  In this post for February’s Openness Edition, Juliano Spyer (@jasper) explains how he created a video logging (vlogging) survey that took on a life of its own within the YouTube vlogging community, and discusses how his research instrument became valuable not only for the himself, the researcher, but for the researched community. Juliano has invited us to respond to his initial post and to experiment with this exciting new survey form. 

Juliano is a Brazilian ethnographer who is currently doing his PhD at University College London’s Anthropology Department where he is part of the Social Networking and Social Science Research Project.

Check out other posts from the Openness Edition: Jenna Burrel’s ‘#GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community‘ and Sarah Kendzior’s ‘On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet‘.

Think of a survey where the presence of the researcher is not required. Think of a questionnaire that is spontaneously answered and also recommended to others inside a network of friends and peers. Think of a situation where the research results do not go exclusively to the researcher, but remain within the researched community and operate as an archive of group knowledge. I have found that all this is possible through video tagging.

What are video tags?

Screen Shot of Juliano waving goodbye to viewers. 2013-02-20 at 3.13.03 PM

Screen Shot of Juliano waving goodbye to viewers. 2013-02-20 at 3.13.03 PM

In 2011, as I conducted an ethnographic study of YouTube beauty gurus, I learned that the vlogging community uses roughly two genres of videos: tutorials, which are step-by-step instructions on how to create a makeup look, and “video tags” or just “tags”, a more personal type of communication which consists of questionnaires created and circulated inside the community.

The term “tag”, here, has at least two meanings: tag as the topic or subject of the questionnaire and tag as the action of inviting (“tagging”) your friends at the end of the questionnaire so they can also answer the questions and bring more people to participate. Levels of participation begin with watching and commenting, then answering tags created by others, then creating original tags.

I won’t go into why users do what they do here. It is enough to say that video tags are a way for participants of a certain community of practice to socialize, to get to know more about the people they admire, as well as to forge new relationships. And for those who decide to respond to the tags, it is a way of becoming known by others in this “informal realm” (Winkler Reid 2010) where a person’s reputation corresponds to the number of subscribers that person’s channel has.

How does a tag circulate?

Usually a user with more experience and reputation starts a tag by speaking a list of questions into their webcam and then answering them while inviting others to do the same. These questions tend to be about a topic of interest for a given community but also provide opportunities for participants to learn about one another’s personal interests, opinions, memories and values. A tag called “My perfect imperfections”, for example, circulates among beauty gurus and, as the title suggests, invited them to say which parts of their bodies they like or don’t like and why.

Usually after answering the questions it is time to “tag” or invite others to participate. In vlogging, this translates into naming the people users choose to invite. Links to invited users’ channels can be found at the “down bar”, which is an area reserved for text under the video. Also as part of this process of inviting other users, one can send a direct message through YouTube to each of the people tagged to make sure they know about the invitation.

Tagging people at the end of videos has an element of distinction. If you are tagged, it means that you are important in some way to the person that tagged you. Tagging can be seen as a type of gift (in the Maussian sense) because those who are tagged receive visibility and promotion. Based on my initial observation, vloggers tend to tag peers that have a similar reputation to themselves as a sign of friendship, or to tag more experienced and well-known users as a sign of respect.

Creating a video tag

I did not establish direct contact with the particular people that I chose to study for ethical reasons, as some of them were not adults. My fieldwork consisted of watching users’ public conversation and tags were a very important source of information. But at the end of the process, after submitting the final study, I felt that by knowing a lot about this group I also had a lot of unanswered questions. This is when I decided to create my own tag.

I called my tag “Vlogueiro Brasileiro” [Brazilian vlogger] and I will include its list of questions in English below, since they are originally in Portuguese. After recording the tag, I proceeded to tag other vloggers that I was following for a related project.

As an experiment, it worked well: some of the people tagged felt honoured by the invitation to participate in this study about vlogging. What I did not expect is that, eight months after finishing my project, the tag is alive and well, still passing from vlogger to vlogger (see a search on YouTube).

An open form of surveying

My tag spread autonomously inside different communities on YouTube such as vlogger communities that talk about diets or share book reviews – groups I did not previously know existed. Some of those answering my tag acknowledge they did not know who created the tag, meaning that their participation occurred not as a demonstration of respect for me but because the tag was meaningful to their peers.

I found the result worth registering because it shows the methodological possibility of conducting research in a more open and interesting way. Firstly, I am not asking more than a handfull of people to participate (and they are entitled to say ‘no’ as it is just an invitation); others answer because the questionnaire proved relevant for them. It seemed to be something that they wanted to say to others and also to learn about from others. My second point is that I am not the owner of the research. The result doesn’t have to be made public; it exists, from the very beginning, as a public resource. Furthermore, each person owns their responses and can take them off of YouTube when and if they feel like it.

Observing vs. participating

One of the inspirations for this exercise came from the study Mike Wesch conducted with his students at Kansas State University, which resulted in a popular video lecture called An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube. After engagements with what could be called more traditional anthropological topics, Professor Wesch invited his students to start studying vlogging by creating their own channels and vlogging themselves.

Wesch did not mention “video tags” in his video, but his methodology showed me that there are innovative ways of conducting participant observation through the internet. Making videos provides insights that the researcher might not have been able to observe and it is a helpful way for the researcher to understanding this form of communication through the perspective of vloggers. For instance, the process of becoming a vlogger tends to involve overcoming the frustration and anxiety produced by what Wesch called “context collapse”. You can read and know what vlogging means, but the understanding will only sink in after you try it for yourself.

Vlogging has more to do with social networking sites than television. (This argument was made by a person who answered my tag with the phrase: “We use YouTube as you use Facebook”) And although there are many scholars conducting research on YouTube, I think we are still far from knowing the potential of the tool that Wesch and others have analysed. So I will end this short piece by offering you two videos: one is a very simple tutorial on how to vlog by using YouTube and a computer with a webcam (no editing program is needed) and the second video is another tag that you can answer if you want.

I hope to see your response to the Vlogging and Ethnography Tag!


Winkler Reid, Sarah. “Valuing the Informal Realm: Peer Relations and the Negotiation of Difference in a North London Comprehensive School.” Thesis. Brunel University, 2010. Print.

Winkler Reid uses “informal realm” in opposition to structured spaces of sociability; the class in a school is structured as identities are set in prior to use whereas the school cafeteria is informal in the sense that identities are not set and will be created through practice.

Questionnaire created for the “Brazilian Vlogger” tag.

1.Do you consider yourself addicted to YouTube?

2. Since when do you record videos?

3. How was it like to record your first video?

4. How often do you create and publish videos?

5. Do you record your vlogs from a special place?

6. Are you able to record videos when there are other people near you?

7. What program do you use to edit your videos?

8. Do you tell other people (friends, family) that you make these videos?

9. What is the equipment that you want to buy to enhance the quality of your videos?

10. How much time do you spend on YouTube every week?

11. What is it that you love the most about YouTube?

12. Who are your idols on YouTube?

13. What do you dream of achieving through YouTube?

14. Television or Internet: which one do you prefer and why?

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