Contested Identities or Controversial Medium? Authentication and YouTube.com
By: Patrick Derby
February 6, 2007
I step outside of my comfort zone, and my identity as a
criminologist, to provide the following commentary on authentication
and ‘new media’ technologies, specifically in the context the popular
video sharing website Youtube.com. I call the text that follows a
commentary, as the thoughts and ideas presented herein require further
development. This being said, I look forward to your challenges and
comments, so I can further develop this piece into an article.
Authenticity and the Authentication of Identity
I believe it is important to define how I understand and use the
concepts of authenticity and authentication. In order to be authentic
the object in question must be genuine and reliable or trustworthy. The
authenticity of an object is often determined through a process for
gaining confidence that the object is what it appears to be; this
process is referred to as authentication, and such processes may vary
in their formality. By no stretch is authentication new, nor does it
emerge with the rise of a networked society. Whether it is ancient
artefacts, video statements allegedly released by terrorist
organizations, or individual identities, all undergo a process of
authentication. As described by Stephan Brands, “[i]n communication and
transaction settings, authentication is typically understood as the
process of confirming a claimed identity” (Brands, 2005: 1, emphasis in original).
Stranger Society: Authenticity in the City and Virtual World
As I have indicated above, authentication is not new to social life.
While individuals once lived their lives in the absence of anonymity,
industrialization and the rise of the city significantly altered the
dynamics of social living. The emergence of the city facilitated the
growth of individualism, privacy, and anonymity, leading some to
suggest that we have become a society of strangers (Lofland,
1973). The ‘stranger society’ thesis simply suggests that most of our
interactions in everyday life occur with strangers who cannot vouch for
our reputation based on first-hand personal knowledge. The unknown
reputations / motives of others are a source of uncertainty and
insecurity, and various institutions began using surveillance
technologies, such as photo identification to authenticate valid
In the early 1990s, we began to see the emergence of the World Wide
Web. Early proponents of the internet promised an anonymous playground,
impossible to regulate. However, the more popular the internet became,
the more incentive dominant institutions had to establish themselves
online. In less than a decade, the vast expansion of information
technology made it possible to engage in urban social life without
actually being present. Shopping and banking can now conveniently be
done online from the comfort of home, while professional and personal
relationships (local and global) may be mediated through the internet
without any actual (physical) meeting. David Lyon (2001) refers to this
declining requirement for co-presence in our day-to-day interactions as
the disappearance of bodies.
As internet usage has become more mainstream, so too have new social
fears, which have had an impact on settings that allow for online
transactions and communications. These fears include, but are not
limited to, fears of identity theft and cyber-predators. First, it was
quickly realized that for the majority, the internet did not make good
on its promises of privacy and anonymity. Most of our online
interactions require that we divulge information about ourselves, which
may later be pieced back together to reveal a better picture of our
real identities. As most of us are aware by now, our personal
information had been commodified, and may be used for both lawful and
illicit purposes. Second, fears have emerged around the threat of
cyber-predators, whether it is paedophiles, child pornography rings, or
even callous men hunting vulnerable women to date for financial gain.
Not surprisingly, institutions have responded to these new fears, in
an attempt protect the online economy, spawning an entire industry
around online privacy protection, surveillance, and authentication.
Parallel to the budding online security industry emerged an ethos of
online responsibilization. While I will not go into any further detail
on the subject, I will acknowledge (whether I agree with them or not)
that great strides have been made by institutions to authenticate the
identities of individual engaging in financial transactions online.
What I would like to discuss in more detail for the remainder of my
commentary is authentication that occurs in online communication
Many of us have had the experience of establishing an email account
of some sort. Whether we choose Yahoo or Hotmail as our email service
provider, or whether we open an account on Blogspot or MySpace, the
process is usually similar. Each of these typically requires the user
to create a self-generated username and password, which is usually
verified using some form of cryptographic technology. But again, as
anyone who has created such an account is aware, the information we
often provide to establish such accounts is rarely, if ever, accurate.
A quick cruise through the user profiles of YouTube members confirms
that I am not alone in providing inaccurate profile information. Given
the above, allow me to suggest that, unlike their counterparts
responsible for transactional settings, the creators of online social
and communication spaces are not preoccupied with authenticating the
true identities of its users. Does authentication not occur in social
spaces online? This is a question I began to explore within the
confines of the YouTube community.
Video Sharing and the YouTube Community
For those who have been hiding under a shell, or simply have not been
paying much attention to the media hype enjoyed by the video sharing
this website had its official debut in November 2005, and by summer
2006 was the fastest growing website on the internet. In November 2006,
the start-up was purchased by Google Inc. for a purported $1.65 billion
US. In addition to sharing music videos and movie/television clips, the
YouTube allows amateurs to post videos or share their experiences
and/or opinions via vlogs. Consequently, YouTube has created several
internet celebrities, several of whom have gone on to experience fame
beyond the YouTube community. While some of these YouTube celebrities
have achieved fame as a result of their film making talents, others
have done so as a result of contested online identities.
This past week a viral video posted on YouTube entitled Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out made national headlines after
receiving over 2 million hits. The clip appears to be an amateur
recording of a twenty-something woman chopping her hair off during a
tantrum an hour before her wedding. Debate immediately emerged
regarding the authenticity of the video. As it turns out, the clip was
an initiative launched by hair product company Sunsilk Canada, and the individuals in the video are aspiring Canadian actresses.
Another contested YouTube identity was that of Bree, more popularly referred to by her username lonelygirl15.
Lonelygirl15 debuted on YouTube in June 2006, as a coming of age story
through which the audience shares in Bree’s life experiences. In
addition to her video postings on YouTube, lonelgirl15 also established
a MySpace site to
facilitate communications with fans. Despite these efforts to make
Bree’s identity as believable as possible, in just over one month,
several fans began to question the authenticity of the lonelygirl15 video blogs, and by September it was revealed that Bree, a.k.a lonelygirl15, was actually an actress
named Jessica Rose. The YouTube community was divided as several
members responded to the lonelygirl15 controversy. While some YouTubers
became upset when to Bree’s true identity was revealed, others provided their support for the series’ creative efforts.
While I am not necessarily concerned with which side individuals
took in this controversy, I am struck by how YouTubers, and even
members of wider society (including popular media), have demanded
authentication of the identities portrayed within this virtual social
space. Whereas in online financial transactions authentication is
top-down, from institutions to users. Authentication in the context of
the examples provided from YouTube, indicate that demands for
authentication in communication transactions is more likely to be
Further, after examining the user profile information of selective
YouTube participants, I have also come to question whether the
lonelygirl15 controversy is really about Bree’s contested identity,
given that it is not uncommon for YouTubers to mask their real-life
identities. Ironically, even some of those who have rebuked
lonelygirl15 are not forthcoming with their true identities, often
providing inaccurate user profile information. Rather than these
controversies being about authentic identities, I believe the
controversy is more rooted in the authentication of the medium used to present video clips such as the lonelygirl15 storyline (vlogging) or the wig out bride.
While the traditional medium of movie and/or film may be understood as
fictional, the vlogs and viral videos presented on YouTube, for the
most part, are conceptualized as authentic, and surely the creators of
lonelygirl15 and the executives at Sunsilk Canada have intentionally
exploited the authenticity of the YouTube medium.
Recently, a reporter asked an advertising executive whether ‘net seed’ clips such as wig out bride are going to become the ‘new normal’ of advertising.
If they are, and if the post-911 ‘new normal’ is any indication of the
events to come, I conclude my commentary with the following questions:
Will YouTube.com become a virtual battleground, and will YouTubers
become the foot soldiers in a ‘war on authenticity’?
BRANDS, S. (2005) Authentication. Available online at: http://www.idtrail.org/files/Authentication_Brands.pdf
LOFLAND, L. (1973) A world of strangers: Order and action in urban public space. New York: Basic Books.
LYON, D. (2001) Surveillance society: Monitoring everyday life, Open University Press; Philadelphia.
Patrick M. Derby is an MA Candidate with the Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa.