December 30, 2006
Surplus Audiences: The Deaf Use YouTube to Communicate Through Signing

When new technologies are created, the initial concern is to reach an intended audience and to fill a particular void. What happens in reality, however, is that many unintended audiences often find and incorporate these products, regardless of how popular the service becomes with the target audience.

This phenomenon of surplus audiences, outside the target demographic but whose use of a product or consumption of some type of media is nevertheless a factor in the popularity of the product, has been of interest to me.

For instance, last June, I wrote about the As the World Turns storyline involving gay character Luke Snyder and how it was being written about regularly on message boards in the gay community, driving interest from a segment of people who were not initially fans of the show but who were particularly into this storyline and who started to become interested in the show in general.

"The thread is a demonstration of how fan communities within a niche audience can begin to proselytize and recruit other members of their social group to watch the show as well," I wrote.

Last month, I wrote about a way in which a company has explicitly begun to take notice of one of its surplus audiences, with DC Comics beginning to market graphic novels to teenage girls, a segment of the fan community that has long existed but has been outside the traditional focus of comics until the popularity of manga reminded creative powers that girls may enjoy comic books, too. I wrote:

We've already crossed the boundary that was placed between comic books and adults, as it's been a longheld myth that comic books--and animation--is strictly children's fare. But it's been a longer road for female readers. The problem is that, even if it is an obvious falsity that women are not interested in a medium like comic books, the majority of content over the years has not written for female audiences in any way, forcing them to be a surplus audience that is not part of the target demographic.

Alec Austin, my colleague here at the Convergence Culture Consortium, sent me this post from Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light, looking at the ways in which deaf audiences are using YouTube.

Now, deaf audiences are not surplus audiences for YouTube. YouTube doesn't have a target demographic in the sense that it is a tool meant to draw in all types of uses. However, one would imagine that the ways in which deaf communities are now using YouTube was not conceptualized as one of the initial reasons for lauching a site to share video.

Teresa writes, "Many of them are not comfortably fluent in written language. For many more, sign is and always will be their first language. YouTube gives them an easy, expressive, unmediated channel for many-to-many communication."

With the many discussions about the power of video communication through YouTube and other video sharing sites, few have thought about those who primarily use visual stimulus to communicate. The use of video blogging and sharing by the deaf community shows a way in which an existing technology can provide surprising uses among audiences not initially considered.

Teresa provides a number of interesting sites featuring videos for the deaf community, which include storytelling, community announcements, politics, and the type of everyday blogging that you expect from most people who have a personal blog.

As Teresa writes, using YouTube as a tool for video and signing truly is "transformational."

Just as interesting is the wide variety of comments left after her initial post and the wide range of people who are part of or interested in the online deaf community who debate the rise of YouTube and its importance to deaf Internet users.



This entry fascinated me. Coming on the heels of the well-publicized crucifixion of yet another Galluedet University President for not being "deaf enough", I read this and wonder how and when we will ever reconcile the burgeoning deaf culture with the rest of main stream culture. Many deaf activists seem determined to separate themselves thoroughly from the "hearing world". What is most troubling is the notion that written language is not comfortable for some number of the deaf, that they use a medium like YouTube to convey sign, which is infinitely richer than the traditional 8-bit character language we hearing folks are used to. Will Simon and Garfunkle's song "Sound of Silence" truly come to pass? "People listening without speaking... People writing songs that voices never share, No one dared..."

Brave New World indeed.


Very insightful comments, Eric. And any reference to Paul Simon is always endearing. I am not as up on studying the deaf culture to completely understand the issues involved, but I do think it's fascinating to have a need for video to have a richer connection and the continued formation of a particularly deaf "community."

This brings up a larger question as to what the Internet is for. Some imagined it as the great equalizer, where people who have what society defines as handicaps that automatically disadvantage them in the physical world to become pointless in a virtual world, where you are known by your opinions only.

In actuality, while there are great advantages from creating online avatars and escaping one's self, we find that people want their Web self to be an extension of their real self, and as often find that people want to find ways to further their own insular communities rather than just create a world where everyone is equal.

It's hard to know how to read this, but I did find it deeply intriguing. Is this "deaf world" a false dichotomy. The question is what the values are for keeping these barriers for entry, for using a language that keeps the rest of the world out (not including all the people who can hear and know sign language, of course).


Sam, you in turn, brought up one of my favorite topics, avatars and the neo-Metaverse being created in online settings such as Second Life! I spend WAY too many hours absorbed in the doings of SL.

As any email user knows, the information content of the written word is limited (hence, my reference to 8-bits worth of information content). Many misunderstandings -- business and personal -- are hatched due to the LACK of emotional or other types of non-written cues in email communciations.

Sign language, on the other hand (no pun intended, really!), is more than just the dry broadcasting of symbols. There is nuance and emotion expressed in sign language that doesn't really exist in the written word.

It closely parallels spoken language in its information content because the SAME non-verbal cues that give spoken language nuanced meaning is present when people use sign language.

While the deaf community might like to think that their culture is uniquely different than that of the hearing community, in fact, both communities benefit from the same non-verbal communication richness, and are, therefore, much more the same than different.


Eric, all very good points. I've had plenty of situations over the years in which an e-mail didn't sound the same in reception that it sounded in emission.

But you are right--sign language bypasses all of these types of tools. Yet, video communication may be taking hold for the "deaf community" in a way that it's not for the non-deaf. We may all be able to bypass that awkwardness, for instance, with having video conferences rather than IMs, but there is a multitasking possible in text form that isn't possible with video.

I think teasing out some of these subtle differences helps develop an understanding as to how the deaf are using YouTube differently than others and also how much of that has to do with social coniditoning or transferring the means of communication from one platform to another. Will all chatting eventually become more preferable in video? Is it a technology thing? Or do most people prefer to give up the non-verbal cues but be able to enjoy the lack of physical performance when communicating online in text chat and e-mailing?