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YouTube, the search engine?

Wallaby This New York Times story about about the use of YouTube as a search engine caught my eye. Apparently, people — particularly kids — are using YouTube as their primary search engine for research projects, news, and other information. The Times paints this trend as the inevitable march of technology but I can't help but see it as the devolution of our collective brain. What we don't get in this story in the fact that defaulting to video-only search is, um, pretty stupid. While I can understand why a 9-year old would do it, you've got to wonder where his teachers are to give him a basic lesson in media literacy: video and text communicate differently and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

To use an example from the article, let's say you need info to do a school paper on the wallaby. A search on YouTube brings up, on the first page, two home movies of people encountering wallabies, a vodka commercial, and kids singing a Raffi song. Even if there was a documentary about wallabies, the student would have to sit, watch, and wait to see if any relevant information appeared. He would then have to transcribe it and check the spelling for any proper nouns or unusual words.

A Google search for "wallaby," however, brings up Wikipedia's wallaby page, a National Geographic factsheet about wallabies, and several other wallaby-relate websites. The information here is laid out clearly, and is easy to scan. The user doesn't have to worry about transcribing or spelling. And several items are hyperlinked in case he wants to find more information about particular points.

Clearly, there are smart uses of YouTube, and it's an essential resource for hunting down TV and video clips but there is no need to uncritically embrace it as a primary source for research.

Posted by carrie on 01/19/2009 | Permalink


Hi, I'm Tyler's father.

Tyler doesn't use YouTube by itself - it's the first place he goes but if he doesn't find what he needs, he jumps on to other sources.

What's fascinating is that he's gotten really good at scanning the textual data around each video clip (# of views, length, annotations, etc) to quickly get a sense of what he's seeing. Tyler is teaching himself to critically pick apart video, not let it wash over him like older people (like myself) tend to do.

Posted by: Ian Kennedy | Jan 20, 2009 2:31:26 AM

Hi Tyler:
I agree with you. Youtube cannot be a search engine as its purpose is more one's sharing visuals with cannot be a primary research source..but of course can be a nice addendum to a research


Posted by: Swami K | Jan 21, 2009 1:28:30 AM

Thanks for your comment, Ian. I wasn't criticizing your son, btw, I was criticizing the story.

Posted by: carrie | Jan 21, 2009 7:41:39 AM

Funny, I've watched plenty of videos on YouTube, including the one on "Platypus Parts," and I see no textual annotations nor statistics that would allow me, a 47-year-old, to "critically pick apart a video" just by using the site.

However, I can tell you that the narration on the platypus documentary is full of anthropomorphic stereotypes (the platypus "looks docile" and "even closes its eyes while hunting" ... erm, what? because it has a humanistic sense that it doesn't want to hurt things?!) that I wonder whether a 9-year-old child could pick up without some kind of parental discussion. Maybe the platypus has a better sense of smell than sight underwater and opening its eyes (a) makes it vulnerable to attack by its prey or (b) reduces its hunting success ... however neither of these possibilities are mentioned by National Geographic's uber-dramatic announcer. Science -- or just entertainment?

My parents had no computers, no Internet, no video cameras, no iPods, but they did teach their children how to think and demonstrated a critical faculty that has stuck with me through the years.

Technology is a tool, not a teacher, and many educators have pointed out the "myth of the digital native": young people who are well-acquainted with the tools but who have no practice at critiquing or evaluating information, so a good deal of what they find is taken at face value.

Posted by: firefly | Jan 27, 2009 4:41:46 PM

Actually, I don't agree that YouTube is a bad resource for first hand information.
I think the doubt one might encounter when confronted with YouTube as a search engine might be similar to the one WIkipedia and the entire idea of open source encountered in the beginning, when everyone was discrediting their potentials just because they were building a new paradigm.
It is true that our society has encountered a shift over the past several years towards a more visually oriented culture, first embracing photography more than ever before, and then, recently, by embracing video culture more and more.

It is very true that You Tube is not meant to be a search engine, but then, it wasnt' meant for "hunting TV and video clips" either.

Just like Flickr was not meant to be a photo sharing resource (not to mention it's being a growin resource for mainstream media and photo agencies such as Getty)- it was meant to be a game!

Likewise, Twitter is much much more than a people's answer to a question: "What are you doing?", and the list could continue including virtually all the Web 2.0 platforms.

None of them are what they were first meant to be, and it turns out it is much better for us that all these platforms turned out to be different than their inventor's initial projects.

I just recently discovered the potential of Youtube for search purposes, especially when in search for video tutorial (on virtually any topic).

You can look on Youtube for cooking tips, or to get a glimpse of a travel destination, or for the latest news coverage, or for the history topics such as Second World War.

Just like sometimes we might prefer asking a friend for a tip before we open up an encyclopedia, likewise we might prefer having actual person explaining us how to do something in a video, than reading about the same thing in the Wikipedia, or Brittanica.

After all, it is just more natural to receive information combining our senses (visual and audio), rather than just using one of them (such as visual for reading).

(P.S. Although I was very critical here about your post, I just encountered your blog today throught the Illegal Art Exhibition, and I am liking the concept ;))

Posted by: Nela | Feb 3, 2009 9:35:11 PM

as a librarian-teacher, i've been using Youtube to introduce basic information retrieval concepts and have had much success (students are interested in the lesson immediately!) i would definitely agree that youtube should not be an end-all-be-all type of resource as realities and world-views are constructed from myriad perspectives (at least the more informed ones are). but i think youtube IS used as a search engine--we cannot stop that use from occurring. and i think it's a good thing: younger people construct their realities and situate themselves within those realities through the observation of video, song, blog--user-generated content (which still isn't taken very seriously as an authoritative resource. i think we need to be critical about the information we have and how it's presented, and we should be responsible for drawing on multiple formats instead of just one....there's a certain bit of elitism that surrounds the issue of user-generated content--that it can't be reliable or authoritative; but we should be drawing on that research and those voices but be consciously aware of how they function, what their purpose is, and how they fall short or fail altogether. i think more instructors need to draw on how youtube can help them engage their students. heck, they should even require their students to use and create video content to enter into a scholarly conversation

Posted by: erin | Feb 9, 2009 11:05:22 AM

Oh, alack and alas. Whatever happened to the dying art of using the shift key?

Posted by: Andrew | Mar 11, 2009 12:39:26 AM

"smart uses of youtube", of course. where else could i see the inspired by kittens girl or a grainy, pirated music video by an obscure band?

really, i like youtube for the above shenanigans, but some of the comments asserting that it's a legitimate media source probably come from the same folks who think that fox, cbs and the like are legitimate media sources. like the major networks, youtube puts zero effort into making sure its content is factual/truthful.

Posted by: joshua | Apr 4, 2009 5:30:32 PM

Just wanted to say a big huge CONGRATS on the book! I look forward to reading it, and I love your blog and your column. Can't wait for the new blog

Posted by: boots | Jun 22, 2009 9:28:56 PM

Making a Google search and calling it "research" is about one step up from your YouTube example (and Wikipedia might be a research starting point, but it sure as hell isn't an endpoint!). Jesus H Christ on a pogo stick! -- most people don't even know how to run a Google search past the "throw a bunch of keywords at it" strategy. Search strategies and techniques are important, and people waste a lot of time and miss a lot of information by not using them. Furthermore, not all information is digitized, and even that which is digitized is often available only through non-public databases, which need to be searched with skill in order to get useful results.

All in all, there's a reason that professional librarians have graduate degrees -- if you're doing research, go talk to one. They're even available to consult for free. People -- especially students -- have absolutely no excuse to limit themselves to half-assed Google or YouTube searching when there are trained professionals available for free that will help them do a faster, better job.

Posted by: Heather | Jul 15, 2009 7:22:31 PM

The discussion seems to be focussed around contexts of "education" rather than of learning.

When I am sitting with my computer late in the evening trying to create something with a new piece of software I know two things... there isn't a highly trained research professional and information manager waiting next door to help me do the search quicker and better; and the help files on the software are probably not going to answer the specific enquiry I have.

So, when I'm looking for "how" to do something - YouTube is often a very good starting point. And this is the understanding that many younger learners have cottoned on to. Most are well aware that paraphrasing and referencing a video source for a formal educational assessment is more difficult than quoting and citing a published expert. They also know that when it comes to understanding - the published expert is probably going to do less for them than the passionate creator of YouTube "how-to" video.

If we want people who know how to learn without needing a teacher for every step of the journey, then young Tyler is providing us all with an opportunity to learn from his strategies.

Posted by: Kim Flintoff | Nov 19, 2009 12:54:02 AM

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