Y for YouTube

—Are Animals the New Celebrities?



Vinciane Despret, trans. Brett Buchanan




The very first video uploaded to the YouTube website, on April 23, 2005, showed elephants in their enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. One of the three creators of the website, Jawed Karim, began a guided tour of the zoo with them, which lasted only nineteen seconds in this clip:



Me at the zoo (2005)


The video remains with the elephants in this episode. Seen in close-up, Jawed hesitates and finishes by saying that ... elephants have really long trunks. ‘That’s cool’, he adds. Didn’t the great philosopher Immanuel Kant, himself writing about pachyderms in his Natural Geography, say that ‘the elephant has a short tail covered with long bristly hair, which is used for cleaning tobacco pipes’ (Kant, ‘Physical’, 586)? He didn’t add ‘that’s cool’, no doubt because it wasn’t fashionable to do so. He would have no doubt thought that it’s quite practical, however.


Since then, the success of animals on YouTube hasn’t stopped growing, and among Internet amateurs, it evokes the metaphor of a truly viral phenomenon, because the spread of content grows as soon as it touches users. This epidemiological metaphor is obviously not without ambivalence; the theme of contagion may just as easily refer to ‘infectious disease’, to Tardean imitation and endemic habits, or to the uncontrollable proliferation of a resistant and destructive virus.1 Insofar as this third hypothesis seems to me a little too close to what is stirred up by advocates of conservatism, who are agitated, when it comes to humans, by what they call the narcissistic worship of self-exhibition, and who are probably close to apoplectic when this infatuation is directed toward animals, I won’t consider it.


On the other hand, the other two versions (that of contagion that leads to metamorphosis and that of imitation that disseminates new habits) seem to me to actually open up interesting paths to explore. YouTube not only reflects new habits but invents and modifies how these habits are spread. In proceeding this way, I want to make another translation perceptible, inspired by what Bruno Latour (‘Beware’) proposes about the innovation of the Internet and the creation of avatars. If I take up his analysis and apply it to the proliferation of amateur videos in which humans stage themselves, I’d suggest that these videos are a vector for a previously unseen production of new forms of subjectivity—of new ways of being, of thinking oneself, presenting oneself, and knowing oneself. These video practices can thus be redefined as sites for the invention of a new form of psychology, that is, as practices of knowledge and transformation—in the same way that novels, autobiographies, and diaries have been for their readers. Where else did we learn how to fall in love, if not in novels? How have we been formed by stories about rites of passage? How have we become romantics?


The appearance of these writings in our lives has nevertheless remained, for most of us, relatively implicit. This is no longer the case, Latour says, when the Internet becomes involved. Self-production in videos leaves traces that are not only disseminated in an explicit way, they also provoke comments that themselves subsist and, in their own way, encourage more comments and more productions. New habits are created and their dissemination can be tracked, as if the world of the actors who participate in this extensive network had become an elaborate laboratory for psychological experimentation, a laboratory for the creation and theorization of these habits, these ways of being, of entering into relations, of presenting oneself. Could one guess, from this, that the videos that increasingly bought animals into our collective spaces might be, in view of this experimentation, the site of a new ethological practice? Admittedly, I am not using the term in its usual and narrow sense as a ‘science of animal behavior’ but in a way that returns it to its etymology, ethos, and the manners, customs, and habits that tie together beings who share, that is, create together, the same ecological niche. In other words, might it be the case that the proliferation of these videos attests not only to new habits but to the creation of a new interspecific ethos, of new relational modalities, that at the same time construct knowledge?


A parallel could be drawn here between these new ways of making animals visible, of addressing them, and the practices of diffusion and knowledge that preceded them, such as with wildlife documentaries. As a sign of the interest they draw, they have more or less multiplied exponentially since their invention in the 1960s.


What interests me in constructing this similarity is to evaluate their potential to transform the beings involved and the knowledge that unites them. Animal documentaries have carried out remarkable transformations. They have introduced new habits with respect to animals and sometimes even new ethea for researchers. The philosopher of science Gregg Mitman (‘Pachyderm’) claims that the introduction of new communication technologies will, right from the start, introduce scientists more intimately not only to the world of animal communication but just as much to the industry of mass communication. This dual introduction will have several effects. On one hand, the possibility of mass communication will lead to the creation of previously unseen networks in the practices of the promotion of conservation. It will profoundly modify how scientists present their work. Animals, now the stars of films and TV series, are bestowed with ‘personalities’ and emotions; they become ‘characters’ through whom everyone can share in their experiences. On the other hand, intimate contact with animals, from this moment on, emerges as a research methodology—one that is still largely contested but that in some cases can be seen as legitimate. It is all the more so because the creation of this intimate contact, for the public, proves to be an effective stimulus in raising awareness for endangered animals. This new manner of ‘doing’ and communicating research—once relegated to the margins of popular books—will contribute to a blurring of the boundary distinguishing amateur practices from scientific practices. For many scientists, including those who played the game, this did not happen easily. Many of them watched with some dismay as their practices were assimilated with those of explorers and adventurers and their animals became seriously anthropomorphized.


In their own right, however, these documentaries had a significant effect on the practices themselves. Not only did they inspire the vocations of some researchers—Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees take the prize in this regard—they also encouraged a certain conception of fieldwork based on what they depicted. If one looks, for example, at the research that marks the scientific history of elephants, one can see that the numbers and statistics that indicate the expertise and authority of the researchers have gradually been replaced by ‘personal’ histories, by films and photos that individualize the animals and that bestow upon them a real status of actors in adventures and experiments. These techniques were at first thought to be better at pleading for their protection; but they became a legitimate method of research. These audiovisual practices, furthermore, had a twofold financial impact for the researchers and the protection of animals: network channels that programmed these films contributed extensively to the financing of research projects, and their broadcasting was much more effective in persuading the public to donate to centers for conservation.


It seems appropriate to consider YouTube videos in the wake of sufficiently similar transformations. Of course, everything is on the Web—but one could say the same thing about documentaries, albeit to a lesser extent. Other modes of knowledge are cultivated; amateurs have taken, or rather, taken over, and this time with unrivaled means of distribution. The animals are part of the cast, even more so than in the documentaries. They are talented beings, remarkable for their heroism, sociality, cognitive and relational intelligence, humor, unpredictability, and inventiveness, and they are now part of everyday life. Of course, these documents do not strictly speaking fall within the domain of evidence; hardly anyone is fooled, as the comments attest; nothing is known about how these images were taken, and one can always suspect deception or the possibility that staging has occurred, with or without the complicity of the animals involved. But nearly all of them speak to the evidence of the image: ‘someone saw it, and the images are proof.’


Some of these videos come from researchers and naturalists, but others do not. It’s sometimes difficult to discern them. The boundary between the domains of the amateur and the scientist has become blurred, and some of the animals displayed can in effect take on a double identity. This is the impression that really jumps out when one watches some of the ten most watched videos. On October 21, 2011, for instance, one can find among the latter a parrot named Einstein who rivals that of the psychologist Irene Pepperberg, though he is invested with competencies that are noticeably less academic:



Einstein the famous talking African Grey Parrot! (2007)


Many comments scroll down the page beneath the clips, some of which align, in a more familiar version, with the arguments that swirl around the scientific debates about talking animals: that it’s conditioning or training, or, on the contrary, that it’s proof of their intelligence and that some animals do know what they’re saying, or perhaps it’s still due to training, but that each iteration of language proves to be à propos.


Another clip shows us some polar bears playing with dogs; their games seem to be pulled straight out of the research of Marc Bekoff, especially as the comments seem to echo the scientific theories that Bekoff proposed:



Polar bears and dogs playing (2007)


The ‘Battle at Kruger’, meanwhile, shows the heroic rescue of a young buffalo from the claws of lions; clearly recorded by tourists, it nevertheless has the look of a real documentary about the way that buffalos socially organize themselves:



Battle at Kruger (2007)


And as for a spectacular fight between two giraffes, it is introduced with the following disclaimer: ‘They dont [sic] show you this on the TV’:



Fighting Giraffes (2007)


These videos are everywhere today. They arouse, and are proof of, our interest. They sometimes even translate some more or less clearly identified interests. For instance, some are taken up as inspiring examples by religious sites. If you search with the keywords ‘love and cooperation in living things’, you’ll witness the rescue of a baby elephant by members of its herd, you’ll accompany the exemplary cooperative life of meerkats, and termites will demonstrate how to build a structure together:



Documentaire - Amour et Cooperation Parmi les Etres Vivants (partie 2 sur 4) (2010)


The commentaries on the sites that you’ll visit are sometimes written in a moral register (solidarity is of vital importance) and sometimes with a theological intention (who else but a God could create a world in which such phenomena can be found?). In doing so, these strategic uses of animals reconnect with older versions of natural history—and sometimes even with more contemporary versions, but never in such an explicit way, as when it consists of a moral and political register.


A slightly different comparison can also be considered, this time with hidden cameras and other prank videos that perpetuate amateur practices—a cat playing ‘hide and seek’ with his owner; a dog riding a skateboard; an endangered penguin seeking hospitality from some sailors; some monkeys looting the bags of naive tourists:



Chat drole qui joue à 1, 2, 3 soleil (2011)




dog practise roller skate (2008)




Un pingouin propose sa plus cordiale amitié à quelques humains (2010)




Why are these monkeys stealing from tourists? (2016)


The proliferation of these videos can be seen as the reinvented legacy of comedy TV shows. The style of some of these YouTube clips seems to be marked by a similar spirit. It’s possible that the website links that are sent to me or that I discover in my searches do not represent a rigorous sampling, but it seems like the videos that continue this heritage have gradually become the minority. The animals that are now being filmed are no longer very often the victims of outtakes and other extraordinary mishaps; nor, properly speaking, are they clowns. If they’re funny, it’s because they are doing surprising things, things that are not expected of them. The unexpected obviously has an anthropomorphic feeling to it; animals do things that are drawn from human action, and the humor, surprise, and amazement are more specifically due to the substitution of the actors involved. This is what makes these clips interesting and arouses enthusiasm: animals teach us about what they are capable of and what we have ignored. Even more, because many of the experiences that are shared on the Web are due to the common work between a human and an animal, from the mutual learning that has developed, from a productive complicity, from a game that has been patiently introduced—a dog and his owner on top of a skateboard, a cat who learns how to surprise his owner who is himself hiding; we learn what we are capable of with them. An impressive stock of knowledge could well be established, one that uses other methods and networks than those of science, other manners of questioning and testing animals—knowledge that adds new meaning to ‘companion species’ relations.


Scientific practice, however, is not missing from this production of knowledge.2 It is often along the margins, but to find it, it suffices to follow the traces left on the Web. Thus, with respect to the elephants who paint in a Thailand sanctuary, and the exploration of possible connections therein, one could begin easily enough with a piece written by Desmond Morris (‘Can Jumbos?), a scientific specialist on painting among monkeys, who himself visited one of the sanctuaries:



Elephant Painting (2008)


The video of the alcoholic monkeys on the island of St. Kitts (see Palmour et al., ‘Monkeys’) is accompanied by a commentary that provides rather precise statistics on the distribution of this habit:



Drunk Monkeys of Turtle Beach (2007)


It seems difficult to imagine, however, that researchers could have controlled the consumption of these uncontrollable monkeys by observing their daily rampages along tourist beaches—and yet the video makes it seem as though the observation itself of the monkeys in situ had allowed the observation of their daily consumption. In fact, the numbers did not come from the field; rather, the field is what gave scientists the idea to reproduce the conditions that allowed these observations to be transformed into statistics. Identifying the precise terms used in the commentary is enough: ‘Monkey’, the place of ‘St. Kitts’, and, of course, ‘Drunk’.3 On the first page of an online search, three articles appear on this subject, two of which recount the process of the scientists’ work: how they got the captive monkeys to drink, to what extent, in what condition, with how many animals, and according to what system of propositions. The statistics that the researchers provide us, therefore, cannot pretend to be about the monkeys at the beach but rather about those who were subjected to the experimental procedure in very precise conditions—and, one has no trouble imagining, they were no doubt quite different. The generalization is made too fast, and the results don’t have the necessary robustness—it’s a little like trying to establish the use of illicit substances or drugs for the human population by studying this in a prison.


Of course, it will be said that we can look for the conditions that led to the production of these numbers, as I have done. But it should not have to be so complicated. The problem is not solely one of precise translation from one sphere to another. If YouTube can become a site for the production of interesting knowledge, combining amateur practices with scientific contributions, then this hiatus between the commentaries on the clips and research as it is conducted ought not to exist. More than just rigor is lost in this hiatus, which is precisely what is of interest in what is called ‘good scientific popularization’ [bonne vulgarisation]. What makes the ‘familiarization’ of knowledge interesting and important, insofar as it’s worthy of its name, is the explanation of these procedures, the precautions of research, the hesitations of researchers, the living beings who are implicated, the processes that authorize the translation of observations into statistics (and statistics into hypotheses), and the debates into which these hypotheses insert themselves. Not only can these ‘details’—which are anything but—attest to the fact that scientists can speak in a legitimate way on behalf of those they have questioned, but they fit into the narrative scheme that makes science interesting: that of enigmas and inquiries, in short that of thrilling and risky adventures.4


Of course, some research will appear for what it is, as not particularly interesting and not especially robust; some scientists thus have everything to fear from this test of visibility and have every interest in keeping the public at a distance. But others can claim a really nice achievement: that of interesting us in, and leading us to love, along with their animals, the scientific adventure that mobilizes them.




‘Y for Youtube’ from What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions? by Vinciane Despret, translated by Brett Buchanan (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Originally published in Que diraient les animaux, si…on leur posait les bonnes questions? Copyright Éditions La Découverte, 2012. Translation copyright 2016 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.


1. [‘Tardean imitation’ refers to the sociological theory of Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904), in which ‘imitation’ is one of three processes in human society: ‘invention’ is the creation of new ideas, orders, values, and so on; ‘imitation’ is the copying and duplication of what already exists; and ‘opposition’ is when different ideas, values, and so on, come into conflict.—Trans.] #back


2. In terms of how one can ‘discover science’ with the advent of videos, I wish to thank my colleague in anthropology Olivier Servais. He helped me considerably in untangling the subtle and complicated connections between YouTube and scientific writings online. I’m also thankful to Éric Burnard, a journalist with Télévision Suisse Romande, who kindly sent me information on religious and political sites that distribute informational clips on the topic of altruism among animals. I’m also thankful to François Thoreau, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Liège, for sharing with me his well-informed and exciting analyses in this area. #back


3. [‘Monkey’, ‘St. Kitts’, and ‘Drunk’ are all in English in the original.—Trans.] #back


4. The idea that popularization can only become interesting if it endears us to the sciences, and shares with us the emotions, difficulties, and debates of scientists, has been the subject of work by Isabelle Stengers (Cosmopolitics I; Cosmopolitics II) and Bruno Latour (Chroniques). #back




Kant, Immanuel. ‘Physical Geography’, trans. Olaf Reinhardt, in Natural Science, ed. Eric Watkins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp.434-679.


Latour, Bruno. ‘Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces’, 2007. 


Latour, Bruno. Chroniques d’un amateur de sciences. Paris: Presses de l’École des mines, 2006.


Mitman, Gregg. ‘Pachyderm Personalities: The Media of Science, Politics and Conservation’, in Thinking with Animals, ed. Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, pp.173–95.


Morris, Desmond. ‘Can Jumbo Elephants Really Paint? Intrigued by Stories, Naturalist Desmond Morris Set out to Find the Truth’. Daily Mail (22 February 2009): n.p.


Palmour, Roberta M.; John Mulligan; J. Jefry Howbert; and Frank Ervin. ‘Of Monkeys and Men: Vervets and the Genetics of Human-Like Behaviors’. The American Journal of Human Genetics 61 (1997): 481-488.


Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I, trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.


Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II, trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.




Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy

ISSN 2200-8616


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