Streaming Death: The Politics of Dying on Youtube
Chapter 4 moves past professional documentaries to consider amateur videos that circulate online. It analyzes two violent 2009 deaths that were each captured by multiple mobile phone cameras, with footage posted on YouTube. The victims were Oscar Grant, a young Black man killed in Oakland, California, by transit police, and Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman killed in Tehran during a protest of that year’s elections. Put to use by activists, these two sets of videos achieved disparate levels of success in raising awareness about their injustices. The chapter argues that YouTube’s failure to provide context for its content—which has prompted scholarly criticisms about its usefulness for activism—can sometimes be politically liberating. However, the centrality of spectacle to success in YouTube’s “attention economy” means that the deaths streaming on the site generate interest from the way they look and sound more than the degrees of injustice they depict. Thus, for activist death footage, only graphically visible death is likely to significantly increase a cause’s political visibility.