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Do YouTube comments have archival value?

Jack O’Carroll is a student in Archival Sciences at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). During his internship at Sound & Vision he researched the use of YouTube comments as archival records.

Jack O’Carroll is a student in Archival Sciences at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). During his internship at Sound & Vision he researched the use of YouTube comments as archival records.

YouTube on an iMac

By: Jack O'Carroll

As an intern at Sound & Vision I was tasked with exploring approaches to collecting YouTube comments. This can be done using the YouTube API to generate a bulk download of comments for a video or a channel. Details of how to do this are covered in the internship report. But other questions raised by the project were more difficult to answer such as why archive YouTube comments, for what purpose, and for which users?

These questions are not helped by the fact that the comments section on YouTube is notorious for low-quality discussion, arguments, offensive remarks. Making a case for collecting all of this as valuable “media heritage” is difficult. 

That being said here are some potentially useful reasons for collecting comments. Ideas came from other research projects and interviews with various stakeholders within the institute.

Computer code

Comments as audience reception records

Sound & Vision already has a collection of letters to broadcasters as records of audience reception. YouTube comments can be seen as a similar type of record that tell us about the audience who watched a video on the platform. Audience reception theory is an idea developed by Stuart Hall who argues that audiences are active participants in broadcast media. This could be an opportunity to bring the audience perspective into the broadcast archive.

Comments as data

YouTube comments can also be used as data. Studies have used comments to perform sentiment analysis to understand how commenters feel about a product for example. Other cases have used comments for discourse analysis seeking to understand the language used by communities on the platform. Comments have also been used for topic modelling. For example determining the category of a video by using comments. 

First YouTube video

The first YouTube video, and the first comment. Source: “Me at the Zoo” by Jawed

Comments as historical record

Comments also have a historical dimension. Since YouTube’s inception in 2005 commenting has evolved in terms of how the platform moderates and organises comments, as well as how people use the comment section. It could be interesting to see these changes over time - for example on a video like “Me at the Zoo,” the first YouTube video published on the platform, has now close to three million comments, spread out over the full period the video has been online. It is also good to be aware that comments disappear all the time, either by YouTube’s changing deletion policies, or by users’ own interactions.

Users of YouTube and comments

Comments can potentially be useful, but for who? Sound & Vision serves a range of users from media professionals, researchers, educational users and a general audience. Most of the uses that we can see today are for researchers, that could approach a collection of comments with various questions in mind.

Perhaps there are new potential users of a media archive emerging in relation to platforms like YouTube. For example, Sound and vision serves ‘media professionals’ as a primary user group, meaning those working in broadcast production, but YouTubers are media professionals too.

YouTubers are the primary users of comments after all with many even finding inventive ways to re-use negative comments on their videos, such as the format used by many vloggers in which they read and respond to their mean comments. Taking this one step further are comment reconstructions, such as this video in which comments about One Direction are made into high drama. 

For more information about the use cases mentioned and technical aspects of archiving comments see the full report.