Sheenagh Pietrobruno
Associate Professor of Social Communication, Saint Paul University

Introduction: Conflicting Heritage Narratives

Social media has become a powerful means to record and disseminate global intangible cultural heritage (ICH). YouTube specifically provides an avenue for a range of users to distribute ICH videos on this commercial platform. YouTube is essentially designed to monetize the labor and communication of users through algorithms and business models. With the aim of making corporate profits, this platform simultaneously offers a social service by distributing diverse ICH representations in video format. In light of the paradox of disseminating ICH on a commercial platform, the issue is raised as to whether YouTube’s diffusion of heritage videos transmits community expressions of ICH that are not recognized by nation-states. Communities produce ICH within the boundaries of nations, yet the practices of given communities may be excluded from national heritage narratives. The narratives addressed here are those that have been put forward by state representatives through UNESCO. Since 2003, UNESCO has safeguarded ICH through the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Convention). This research is approached through the case study of the Mevlevi Sema (Whirling Dervish Ceremony) of Turkey, recognized as official ICH by UNESCO in 2005. Representatives of the Turkish state safeguard the Sema as a practice that is linked to Sunni Islam and performed in public ceremonies only by men. This national safeguarding renders the Sema a political tool to realize the ruling government’s nationalist agenda of privileging Sunni Islam above other religious affiliations (Aykan, 2012). This safeguarding through the Convention leads to the exclusion of other Sema communities, particularly a community known as the Foundation of Universal Lovers of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi (EMAV), which has allowed women to perform in public ceremonies since 1993 (Pietrobruno, 2014).

Social Media and Heritage: Theoretical Issues

The countering of official ICH through the dissemination of community expressions arises because YouTube archives ICH videos uploaded by UNESCO as well as other institutions, individuals, and communities. The storing of UNESCO and user-generated ICH videos is creating informal and dynamic archives that are constantly changing in accordance with user-generated content and algorithms. Despite this continuous fluctuation, certain videos remain at the top of a search engine results page (SERP) over time. Social archiving can call into question the UNESCO-sanctioned narratives of intangible heritage advanced by national governments through the stories transmitted in user-generated videos, metadata, and posted texts. This archiving can further challenge national heritage stories by positioning specific videos on shifting lists as well as stable lists assembled by search engines through algorithms and user-generated input. The theorizing of YouTube as an archive and the role that narratives play in this archiving draws from media archaeology work on the digital archive (Chun, 2011; Ernst, 2012; Parikka, 2011) and on the role of narrative in the digital archive (Hayles, 2012).

YouTube’s capacity to counteract UNESCO-supported narratives of ICH nevertheless yields to the politics of code. This platform is under the authority of algorithms and policies that Google designs to convert the labor and social interaction of users into corporate profits. Google does not disclose the ranking algorithms that structure the tabulation of YouTube videos under different search terms. Yet some details are rendered explicit. For instance, videos on YouTube are generally ranked in accordance with their performance as determined through user-generated content and activities, including watch time, view count, comments, and relevance of textual information or metadata. Videos whose metadata correspond to the search term have a better chance of being included on the first SERP. The metadata that are connected to a video is fundamental, as YouTube’s ranking algorithms are not capable of listening to or watching videos. Because sounds and images are not discernible to crawlers, textual information is deployed by crawlers to index videos. Google’s algorithms are hierarchical and generally privilege the more popular uploaders in their ranking mechanisms. Videos can rank higher as promoted videos via paid searches, which are linked to keywords in search queries (Van Dijck, 2013: 116, 117). The deployment of algorithms created by Google joins forces with user-generated content and user communication to structure the ranking of videos under specific search terms. Through this process, the YouTube distribution of ICH content under given search terms fosters a diversity of heritage videos that are continuously changing rank in accordance with algorithms and user-generated content. Analyzing the continuous shifting of ICH videos over time is inspired by a methodology put forward by Christine Hine in Virtual Ethnography (Hine, 2000). A selection of these videos also prevails at the top of a SERP in accordance with the hierarchical structure of YouTube’s ranking. Analyses of videos at the top of SERPs show that search engines create cultural hierarchies by privileging the heritage perspectives that have been put forward by dominant heritage organizations, including UNESCO (Rogers, 2013: 86). Analyzing ICH videos at the top of SERPs is inspired by a methodology put forward by Richard Rogers in Digital Methods (Rogers, 2013).

UNESCO videos of community expressions combine with videos from a variety of sources potentially challenge official ICH narratives. This possible challenge emerges through the visual content of videos. Images in videos offer an evasion of corporate surveillance whose algorithms may be reinforcing the ranking of official heritage institutions at the top of SERPs. This research demonstrates that the content of videos or the actual stories recounted through images can challenge dominant heritage narratives by escaping to a certain extent the ranking and sorting performed by the algorithms of YouTube’s search engine. As mentioned, visual data are invisible to search engines, which rely on metadata to classify and rank videos on YouTube. Therefore, the flow of data on YouTube, which brings audiences into contact with images that can evade the indexing of search engines, may become part of the narratives forged by audiences as they find meaning in the juxtaposition of images and texts that can counter dominant heritage narratives. That the content of videos, such as the ICH of Mevlevi Sema communities, can counter official and dominant representations of ICH, such as the one put forward by the Turkish nation-state through UNESCO, disproves claims made in contemporary analyses of search engines and social media. Arguments have been made that the top of SERPs (Rogers, 2013) as well as YouTube (Fuchs, 2014) cannot produce a diversity of content.

Methodology: Combining Theory, History, Ethnography, and Digital Methods

The methodology of this research combines critical heritage with performance studies, media studies, and software studies as well as historical and contemporary analyses of the Sema. Theoretical and historical approaches are interconnected with ethnographic work conducted in 2012 on the EMAV community in Istanbul (Pietrobruno, 2013), interviews with UNESCO heritage practitioners (2012, 2015), ongoing virtual ethnographies of YouTube Sema videos, and analyses of the SERPs of YouTube Sema videos conducted during intermitted periods since 2012.

Conclusion: YouTube, Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Politics

This research interconnects culture and politics in the arena of intangible heritage and social media. It further demonstrates how the ranking of dominant national ICH videos, which are maintained through technical protocols on a mainstream platform, can be challenged. In the case study of the Sema, the algorithms designed to monetize user communication privilege videos that feature dominant ICH institutions by stabilizing their position at the top of SERPs as well as recirculating them more extensively in shifting list patterns. Despite this privileging of official representations of the Sema that promote the practice as one exclusively performed by men, an in-depth analysis of the actual content of Sema videos, even ones that rank at the top of SERPs, reveals alternative community expressions: women performing alongside men in public performances. Such expressions counter dominant ICH representations put forward by nation-states through UNESCO.


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Hine, C. 2002. Virtual Ethnography. London: Sage.

Parikka, J. 2011. “Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics.” Theory, Culture and Society 28 (5): 52–74.

Pietrobruno, S. 2013. “Mevlevi Sema Ceremony Istanbul 2012 Summer.” (accessed 1 October 2016).

——— 2014. “Between Narratives and Lists: Performing Digital Intangible Heritage.” B.T. Knudsen, M. Daugbjerg, and R.S. Eisner, eds., special edition of International Journal of Heritage Studies 20 (7-8): 742-759.

Rogers, R. 2013. Digital Methods. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Van Dijck, J. 2013. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.