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7 April 2017

Russia’s YouTube Generation

A younger generation of Russians turned out to be the face of last month’s anti-corruption protests. All thanks to YouTube? 

On March 26th, a wave of anti-corruption protests swept across more than 90 Russian cities. One of the central themes was the active participation of people under 20, which many in Russia’s state media indulgently (and somewhat patronisingly) called ‘school kids’ (shkolota).

Of course, it is hardly possible to calculate the exact percentage of young people among the participants of the protests, whether in Moscow or elsewhere in the country; yet it is not the precise share of young people that plays a role, but the feeling that a large number of ‘school kids’ were involved.

One popular explanation for the ‘rejuvenation’ of protests is that the protests attracted ‘YouTube kids’ who had watched and shared the videos of Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader. This was an idea expressed bythe director of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) Valery Fedorov during a recent interview. Partly, that thinking makes sense: the spark for these protests came from a video prepared by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) based on one of its investigations. The video, entitled ‘On vam ne Dimon’ (He’s not a Dimon), was released via YouTube.

This sort of thinking echoes Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist, who believes YouTube is a far more effective communication channel than Facebook. Not only can YouTube posts be embedded and shared through any social media channel or website very easily, a tendency towards full-screen mode allows for a far more extensive intake of information than the skimming, liking and commenting habits encouraged on the mini-feeds of Facebook, Twitter or VKontakte.

That may be so for general communication, but let us consider the Russian YouTube ecosystem as a channel of political communication. Kamikadzedead is the most popular channel on politics in the Russian-language YouTube: at the end of March, it had 916 thousand subscribers, which does not elevate it to the Top 100, yet this channel ranks 71st in terms of views (371 million). The channel covers political news from an opposition perspective, and offered an interview with Alexey Navalny in March. The author of the channel, Dmitry Ivanov, is the editor-in-chief of CarambaTV, a website which consolidates many popular video bloggers in Russia.

We can separately highlight the channel managed by Ukrainian journalist Anatoly Sharia, which flags up both Ukrainian and Russian political events. The channel has 980 thousand subscribers and as many as 1.3 billion views, which puts it in the Top 20 Russian-language channels in this respect.

Towards the end of March 2017, Aleksey Navalny’s channel had about 700 thousand subscribers and about 85 million views. These figures are impressive. But let’s put them in perspective. Navalny’s channel has not even made it to the Top 100 of Russian-speaking video bloggers, whether in terms of the number of subscribers or the number of views. The Anti-Corruption Foundation’s video about Dmitry Medvedev’s property is an unquestionable success: it attracted more than 15 million views in the course of three weeks, whereas ‘Chayka’, a film dedicated to the children of the Russian Prosecutor General and their dubious business schemes, was watched just under 6 million times in the space of a year; an earlier video about Medvedev’s secret dacha attracted 4.7 million views in six months. (These figures reflect the number of views, not the number of people who watched the materials.)

Even taking the success of Navalny’s latest video into account, when speaking about the political segment of  Russian YouTube, we must acknowledge that it is highly local, if not marginal, in relation to other YouTube content.

Granted, it is not so marginal as to be irrelevant to political outcomes. In 2016, Vyacheslav Maltsev, the anchor of the ‘Artpodgotovka’ Channel, won the primaries of the PARNAS party. Maltsev’s views aroused opposition among many party members, yet his YouTube channel allowed him to outperform his competitors and to represent the party in TV debates. Moreover, his channel has just 116 thousand subscribers, which is rather modest, even by the standards of users who focus on Russian politics.

Still, if political posts are not anywhere near the most watched posts, what can we find at the top of the Russian YouTube ratings? There are several main types of popular YouTube channels: 1) Let’s Play: Blogger and gamer PewDiePie, one of the representatives of this genre, has the largest number of subscribers among all YouTube channels (54.4 million). The popularity of this genre can be attributed to the fact that the ‘walk’ through games resembles a television series with a twisted plot, but it is also interactive.  It has the feel of a new kind of spectator sport, where people experience the same kinds of emotions as when they go to see a football or hockey match; 2) Sketch comedies and other types of entertainment: here, bloggers compete against TV comedy shows and sitcoms; 3) Reality shows, where the blogger’s life represents the main storyline.

Top 10 Russian-language video bloggers

Name of channel

Number of subscribers

Channel type (for typology, see above)

Ивангай (Ivangai)

11,260,614

2

SlivkiShow

7,982,584

2

FROST

6,364,464

2

TheBrainDit

5,865,906

1

TheKateClapp

5,430,713

3

TheBrianMaps

4,933,778

2

MrLololoshka (Roman Filchenkov)

4,903,907

1

Maryana Ro

4,788,835

3

Sasha Spilberg

4,764,885

3

Maria Way

3,587,660

3

 

Let us now compare the most popular videos on those channels versus the much-talked-of ACF’s video ‘On vam ne Dimon’:

Video author

Name of video

No. of views

No. of comments

Alexey Navalny

Он вам не Димон (On vam ne Dimon)

16,398,256

75,810

SlivkiShow

ЧТО БУДЕТ, ЕСЛИ ПОДЖЕЧЬ 10 000 БЕНГАЛЬСКИХ ОГНЕЙ! (What if we light 10 thousand Bengal lights!)

33,093,092

41,753

Ивангай (Ivangai)

EEONEGUY - #ДЕЛАЙПОСВОЕМУ (#DOYOUROWNTHING)

29,243,660

134,894

TheBrainDit

GTA 5 – Обзор PC Версии! Дождались! (GTA 5 – Review of the PC version! Finally!) (60 FPS)

17,744,555

6,948

TheBrianMaps

ЧТО ВЫ НЕ ЗНАЛИ О ГТА 5? (Things you didn’t know about GTA 5)

16,324,977

18,794

 

Of course, the film by the Anti-Corruption Foundation still has  time to outperform these videos, but if we compare the number of views with the effort and risks that went into creating these materials, ‘On vam ne Dimon’ will have a very different ratio of production cost per view.  

Notably, none of the Top 10 sources reacted to the protests and the ACF film. As regards the fairly popular bloggers, this topic was raised by kamikadzedead and Danila Poperechny. Getting the protests featured on these otherwise apolitical posts would be a substantial breakthrough that so far eludes the opposition.

Even so, the difficulty that the opposition faces in Russia is not limited to the lack of acknowledgement from these influential but largely apolitical YouTube Top 10. When working with YouTube, it is hard to live up to a new form ofvisual language which has developed on that site. In other words, it will be extremely problematic to adapt any pre-existing TV content to this format. YouTube is certainly not the same as ‘TV without censorship’: although, on the surface, the content is perceived in a similar way, YouTube has established completely different models for content creation and presentation. What plays an important role is the emotionality and abundance of visual images. A talking head sitting at the table in one pose is a familiar TV format for an older audience; but it is alien and tedious for the YouTube generation. For this reason, any attempts made by political forces to reproduce  aesthetics suited to television usually result in failure. And attempts to mimick more trendy YouTube styles can also be seen as cringeworthy and out of place( for example, we can mention the cartoons prepared by the Spravedlivaya Rossiya party in the style of popular rap battles).

For the above reasons, it is easy to overstate the mobilising role played by YouTube  for the26 March protests. It would be a mistake to draw conclusions already that the new Youtube Generation is more politically engaged than their predecessors and were a driving force of the protests — since the numbers demonstrate that political engagement among YouTubers is still a sideshow in relation to gaming blogs and reality TV clips. Most likely, not so many young people took part in the protests but they were just easily noticeable and became a visual anchor, which was later covered by the media as a way of trivialising and belittling the issues raised. At the same time, it is worth recognising that those ‘school kids’ who took to the streets were not so strongly connected with the YouTube mainstream. Young people always have some potential for protests, but the ways to activate them nowadays are still extremely difficult to find. It is one thing watching a video; another thing entirely is showing up in person to protest. There is still the possilibity that ‘school kids’ will easily replace the battle between a refrigerator and a TV set — personal needs versus the illusions of state propaganda — with a jumbled intake of wacky, entertaining video posts that help the viewer digress from political questions, rather than engage and grapple with them. The opposition, if it is to gain much further ground on YouTube, will have to compete for attention with these sorts of posts in a similarly emotive, wacky and entertaining style — or win the endorsements of the owners of these already far more popular YouTube channels. 

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