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Summary:

How do cultural ideas spread across the world, and why are people in some countries into similar things? A new MIT project looks at YouTube to find answers.

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This is fascinating: What We Watch, a new project of the MIT Center for Civic Media, visualizes the way popular YouTube videos spread around the globe. The site’s map lists the ten most popular videos in dozens of countries, and then goes on to show where else in the world people have a similar taste in YouTube.

The results are often surprising. Who would have guessed, for example, that YouTube viewing habits in the U.S. are more similar to what people are watching in the Netherlands than in the U.K. or even in Canada? And who knew that India’s YouTube viewing is most closely related to Saudi Arabia?

Who would have thought: What We Watch shows that U.S. YouTube viewing is most closely related to what people watch in the Netherlands.

Who would have thought: What We Watch shows that U.S. YouTube viewing is most closely related to what people watch in the Netherlands.

What We Watch also shows which videos are unique to a country, meaning that they’re popular in one country but pretty much nowhere else in the world. One example: This pretty adorable Cheerios ad didn’t really catch on with audiences anywhere else, possibly because the rest of the world simply eats different kinds of cereal.

The site even compares YouTube trends between two countries, making it possible to see which videos are popular in both Canada and Russia, for example.

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What We Watch is definitely fun to play with, but there are also some bigger idea behind the project: Its makers, who include MIT Center for Civic Media Director Ethan Zuckerman, wanted to learn more about the way information travels in a world where everything is connected, yet borders, language barriers and socioeconomic realities separate nations from another.

On his blog, Zuckerman wrote Monday:

“A network that connects computers throughout the globe doesn’t guarantee that content – like videos – will spread across borders of language, culture and nation… people tend to overestimate the Katy Perry effect in which US culture sweeps the globe, leveling everything in its path. In some cases, people encounter another culture and reject it violently (the Taliban model), shape it and incorporate it into a new hybrid (the curry model) or simply decide it’s not for them (the firewall theory.)”

This is an interesting way to look at YouTube: Not just a site that demonstrates technology-fueled cultural globalization, but also an indicator of how ideas travel in a world where they could go everywhere, but often take a very specific path.

  1. Wow, this is really interesting topic. Especially for international businesses such as myself. Appealing to users internationally is a challenge since there’s only so much information to understand about a location through research. I look forward to learning more about this project and will hopefully use it to analyze different video viewing behaviors.

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