Social Influence, Social Distance: Looking at YouTube in Lockdown

August 3, 2020

Living in the shadow of a global pandemic can really mess with your head. Pervasive forces of uncertainty, existential fear and political turmoil combine with the monotony and repetition of domestic isolation to leave memories of this time frequently confused – as everything and nothing happens around us – time both stretched and dilated. Once all this is over, many of us might find it hard to remember what life was really like during these months, but the memories stored in social media and entertainment will remain.

As the largest and most diverse repository of online video, YouTube has the ability to crystallize and “work through” (Ellis, 2002) popular culture, organising a multitude of voices and representations into a digestible stream of media that can provide a vivid image of a point in time. Such an image is not unproblematic, largely constituted as it is by deliberately recorded and uploaded content. But like a time capsule, a vertical selection of YouTube uploads can provide a valuable and telling window into a cultural moment. Individual experiences of YouTube can also be vastly different – to each user, YouTube’s images of domestic and professional life, news, education and entertainment media all combine into a cultural memory that might feel natural and shared, but is still inevitably personal and determined by an impenetrable recommendation algorithm.

Described by Mark Banks (2020) as a ‘COVID bounce’, “enforced confinement has provoked an upsurge in the consumption of cultural industry goods”. With much film and TV production halted, under COVID-19 YouTube’s equally housebound content creators (already struggling through disempowering structures of algorithmic professionalisation) have found themselves in higher demand than ever by audiences eager to consume media that allows them to escape from, interrogate or otherwise cope with their daily lockdown lives (Tolson, 2010). Many channels have been forced to embrace a ‘quarantine aesthetic’ that depicts the lockdown experience as tough but liveable, while others opt to upload archive footage or nostalgic content that reflects on the time before, further distorting our sense of temporality. No longer the bastion of domestic, amateur content once described by Michael Strangelove (2010), YouTube is now home to media produced at every level of professionalism and budget, each with their own affordances and limitations in the face of professional and social upheaval. 

This guest-edited edition of Networking Knowledge invites proposals from postgraduate and early career researchers for papers that explore YouTube content regarding or impacted by the cultural effects of COVID-19. Case studies could include:

- Domestication of professional spaces i.e. Bon Appetit at Home; Ellen / Jimmy Kimmel at Home

- Professionalisation of YouTube i.e. National Theatre Live

- Live streaming practises i.e. Music Festivals ‘at home’

- The YouTube ‘quarantine aesthetic’

- Travel content during travel bans

- Vlogging the everyday lockdown lifestyle 

- Family channels & home-schooling

- Affordances for new content; limitations of production

Potential contributors are invited to send abstracts of up to 300 words to the editors by 18 September, 2020, with decisions to follow by October 1st and full drafts of 5000-7000 words due by 1 February 2021. Proposals for shorter case-studies of 2000-3000 words are also encouraged, as well as creative contributions, reflections, and interviews. Both guest editors can be contacted with queries ahead of the deadline.

Guest Editors

Rachel Phillips – Cardiff University –

Henry Morgan – Cardiff University –


Banks, M. (2020). ‘The work of culture and C-19’. European Journal of Cultural Studies.

Burgess, J. and Green, J. (2009) Online Video and Participatory Culture. Oxford: Polity Press.

Ellis, J. (2002) ‘Television as working-through’. In: Gripsrud J (ed.) Television and Common Knowledge. London: Routledge, pp.65–80.

Kavoori, A. (2011) Reading Youtube. New York: Peter Lang.

Stokel-Walker, C. (2019) Youtubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars. Canbury Press.

Strangelove, M. (2010). Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People. University of Toronto Press.

Tolson, A. (2010) ‘A new authenticity? Communicative practices on YouTube’. Critical Discourse Studies 7(4): 277–289.