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Childhood and Memory in the Age of YouTube

by Teagan Hughes

Staff Writer

[originally published July 2021]


When I was in elementary school, I made sketches and music videos with my friends to upload to YouTube. We used toys as stand-ins for ourselves, bobbing their heads in time with our words. Comedy was our wheelhouse, but we began our foray into drama later in our careers, making little pastiches of the high school dramas we’d seen by that point in our lives.

Once I stopped making these videos, I forgot about them for a while. I suddenly remembered a few years later, prompting me to immediately private them. I couldn’t bring myself to delete them forever—it was my friends and I, and we were having fun—but I couldn’t bear to keep them public. I privated all fifty-or-so videos before logging out of the channel, assured that I would be able to log back in to view all my videos privately whenever I wanted to reminisce with friends (i.e. laugh at our poor narrative and editing skills). I made it a point not to delete the entire channel; I remember considering it, but rejecting the idea. I knew I would want to watch the videos later in life, so I left the channel up. However, when I attempted to log back into the channel last year, I was informed that it no longer exists.

I can get into the Gmail account associated with the YouTube channel just fine, but Google tells me that the channel itself does not exist. Your Gmail account and your YouTube channel are two separate entities in Google’s eyes, so just because the Gmail account is still accessible doesn’t mean the channel is. It doesn’t pop up in YouTube search results, and the profile picture and channel name are gone from my Gmail account, a deletion I have no memory of making or even intending to make. My watch history and subscriptions from when I was using my channel are still intact, and I can still find old emails in my Gmail account with YouTube notifications from the channel. However, I’ve tried both Google’s Channel Switcher function and Gaia Link, and neither of them return any results.

People always say that everything you put online lasts forever, but I’ve encountered a liminal space in which that rule no longer holds true. My childhood memories, the by-products of playdates and sleepovers with old friends, have been sucked into a black hole. These videos were a form of self-expression that, while decidedly silly and largely inconsequential, were a substantial part of my journey to self-discovery and simply very important to me at the time. Now, a decade later, they’ve vanished without a trace. These videos are not accessible to me in any way, shape, or form. It’s not like when you lose something tangible, but it still exists out in the world somewhere—they’re just gone. They were and now they’re not.

The disappearance of my childhood mementos serves as a microcosm of twin phenomena that are becoming troublingly ubiquitous: memory made intangible, and childhood made public. Not to say that memory is not by nature intangible, because it is; but there is a striking evolution in childhood mementos and the external expression of memory that can be traced over the past several decades. Kids growing up in the 90s and into the turn of the millennium had their childhoods recorded on camcorder and onto tapes and DVDs, creating an external, physical expression of an internal, abstract memory. Many people were still printing out photos and compiling albums, creating concrete and chronological records of childhood. Art and writing by kids was something tangible, something that you could keep, examine, and hold in your hands.

The evolution happens here: as we, of this generation, reached our pre-teen and adolescent years, memory migrated online. Social media emerged as a recordkeeping tool, and photos, videos, and art became increasingly stored virtually, existing only as a computer file or somewhere in the nebulous “cloud.” This isn’t an inherently bad transition; it’s all extremely convenient and clutter-reducing, and I am of course always impressed by—if apprehensive of—technological advancement. However, when I look back on my later elementary school years, I find myself wishing I had DVDs of these videos I made with my friends or even written copies of our “scripts” (if only we’d thought to make proofs of concept). At least if I’d scratched up a DVD or torn some notebook paper, I’d know exactly why I could no longer have it. These intangible methods of recordkeeping are extremely volatile and difficult to grasp, making us reliant on the corporations (oftentimes, tech giants) that provide us the storage and the servers to keep our memories around. Increasingly frequently, we are forced to navigate labyrinths of impenetrable restrictions, links, and logins, just to get to our own stuff.

Many of the more intangible methods of memory storage come with higher publicity than DVDs or photo prints. YouTube, though it was largely conceptualized as entertainment, has been used for over a decade and a half now to document and, in many cases, monetize childhood. I’m not talking about families that innocuously upload their home movies to YouTube to share with Grandma (although it’s fascinating and perhaps a little insidious that YouTube is now the easiest way to do so). As YouTube gained prominence, more and more kids and teenagers began creating content specifically for YouTube. Many of YouTube’s first real “celebrities” were kids just being kids (i.e. making silly skits and telling silly stories). YouTube quickly became extremely popular with an extremely young demographic, which had the effect of exposing said young demographic to Google’s (and other tech companies’ and websites’) harmful data harvesting and data mining practices, along with an increasingly dangerous algorithm designed to maximize watchtime at all costs. These issues have reached new heights in the past few years due to an influx of deeply damaging “children’s content” on YouTube and the manufactured nature of kids’ and family YouTube channels, often with parental involvement, creating a precarious environment that I don’t have the space to demonstrate the full extent of here.

Ultimately, my friends and I, along with every other kid making skits in their rooms, were just being kids and having fun, and in trying to make and share our silly little videos, we were thrust into a rapidly shifting world that we couldn’t understand and can no longer reach. I wish now that I could access my old videos. I wish I could watch them to remember my first friendships. I wish I could watch them so I could know what I thought constituted “comedy” back then. I want to evaluate my former video editing skills, and I want to figure out how I used to structure fictional narratives. My old videos were essentially a window into my young mind that has totally vaporized, most likely permanently.

I don’t blame my young self (nor anyone else who did as I did) for choosing such a volatile method of self-expression and documentation (or, rather, a volatile method of storing such things outside of myself). Even YouTube didn’t know what a monstrosity it would become at that point—how could I have? I only wish I'd kept my creations to myself, for myself. I always thought that I would have my videos forever, but a decade-plus later, I find myself unable to navigate Google’s arcane recovery labyrinth, without the window into my childhood I thought I would always have. (I guess I’ll just get really into DVDs from now on.)

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