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(In)visible Experiences in “University Life” Vlogger Culture

6 October 2022

YouTube app on a smartphone

As part of a Cardiff University Research Internship, Dr Francesca Sobande and third-year undergraduate student Jeevan Kaur considered how and why universities and their students engage with YouTube vlogger culture.

For decades, digital culture has played a significant part in students’ experiences of university. But in the 13 years since Francesca was an undergraduate who found a flatshare through the classified adverts site Gumtree, the digital culture landscape of student life has shifted.

While a lot of students still turn to the internet as part of how they embark on their time at university, sites such as Gumtree have gathered some dust.

Although social media is no longer a “new” phenomenon, the relationship between vlogger culture and higher education in the UK is still relatively recent. The rise in online content-sharing platforms that offer people the chance to create and post videos has presented new ways for students to source and share information, as well as new ways for universities to market themselves.

Universities enter vlog culture

The 2010s saw a societal move towards more instant messaging platforms, as the popularity of some asynchronous online forums declined. By the 2020s, aspects of influencer culture – including video blogging (vlogging) practices – were part of many people’s daily lives. From creating content, to attempting to engage with existing viral trends – universities began to incorporate vlogging into their marketing and communications strategies.

Often ahead of how universities engage with vlogger culture, students have resourcefully made use of content creation processes to inform and interact with each other. Focusing on such online experiences and activities, we analysed some of the meanings and messages associated with YouTube vlog content about university life. In doing so, we acknowledged that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic catalysed an increase in universities’ use of online video and vlog content to engage with students.

Researching how and why

Specifically, as part of the Cardiff University Research Internship scheme (formally known as CUROP), in June and July 2022, we collaboratively considered how and why universities and their students engage with YouTube vlogger culture.

Our work was guided by an intention to contribute to a nuanced understanding of students' and universities' use of YouTube vlogger culture, particularly to support educators, professional services, and institutions that strive to improve student experiences.

Independent vs institutionally affiliated

To do this, we conducted a critical digital discourse analysis of vlog content about 5 of the “top 10” UK universities according to previous Times Higher Education rankings. Our research project examined vlogs created by influencers independently of universities, and vlogs explicitly created for, or in partnership with, them.

Then again, as our analysis revealed, distinguishing between these types of vlog content (e.g., independent v. institutionally affiliated) can be difficult due to the ways that higher education institutions may strategically associate themselves with independent influencers by publicly engaging with their posts.

Our analysis accounted for different components of such vlog content to aid understandings of considerations, opportunities, and challenges involved in students' and universities' use of vlogging to raise awareness of aspects of university life and resources.

We analysed 20 vlogs in total, which involved us reflecting on questions such as: 1) how is university life framed in the content? 2) whose and what experiences are foregrounded, and why? 3) what genre/sub-genre does each vlog appear to be part of (e.g., “moving in” vlogs, “study skills” vlogs, “life in the university city” vlogs, “homesick” vlogs, and “international student experience” vlogs)?

Recurring framing of certain perspectives

Key themes that we identified focus on how vlog content about university life serves various and interconnected functions related to marketing, education, and entertainment.

Such themes stem from the recurring framing and promotion of certain perspectives and elements of university life (e.g., idealised study habits and productivity hacks, romanticised notions of feeling “at home at uni and in student halls”, and aspirational and gendered images of the fun and friendships that can be part of students’ experiences of higher education).

A pattern made up of different coloured words made up of the themes identified in the research
Key themes related to marketing, education, and entertainment.

As well as noting thematic patterns within and across the vlogs that we analysed, we observed absences which powerfully point to how “university life” vlogger culture is impacted by intersecting oppressions such as racism, sexism, classism, and ableism.

A collection of words made up of different colours, titled the invisibility of experience.
In contrast, the absence of certain thematic areas was also noted.

Our research project was relatively short and small scale, but it yielded valuable insights such as the following which would benefit from being the focus of future research:

  • Perceived “authenticity” and “relatability” remained central to sustaining helpful exchanges between students (including as content creators) and institutions.
  • Universities offering collaborative opportunities allowed students some degree of agency and autonomy, increasing the prospect of potentially meaningful connections between students (including as content creators) and universities.
  • The “university life” vlogger culture landscape – and the vlogger landscape more generally – is not inclusive of a wide range of different student experiences and life circumstances (e.g., limited content concerning the experiences of disabled students, student carers, LGBTQIA students, mature students, and Black and Asian students). Arguably, this is suggestive of how intersecting inequalities impact student life, its portrayal in vlogs, and the likelihood of certain student demographics receiving paid content creation opportunities in higher education.
  • Transparency, accountability, and regulation surrounding student content creator labour conditions should be addressed. Student content creators who produce material for universities must be protected from the potentially negative impact of blurred boundaries between studying at, and working for, a university.

Who is missing and why?

Overall, we gained unique insight into the complex framings and constructed meanings of university student life within the evolving YouTube landscape. The project identified where online and offline worlds collide, which is increasingly prevalent for university students, particularly in perceived “post-covid” times.

These digital messages can be understood beyond the promotional content they present, and mirror interlocking systems of oppression such as ableism, sexism, racism, and classism.

Limited access to resources and regulatory protections for content creators reveals exploitative online inequalities and exclusionary working practices. Through our research project on vlogs about “university life”, we ask, and encourage universities to critically consider: who is missing and why? What is shown and what remains hidden?

Enhancing visibility

For universities eager to celebrate their diverse student communities’ what are some steps for becoming more inclusive and creating more equitable environments? By enhancing the visibility of different student groups, life circumstances, and intersectionality, institutions can more effectively align their messaging with the different realities faced by a wider range of students.

However, action must move beyond solely focusing on matters regarding visibility, and to guarantee that the work and labour conditions that student content creators experience do not expose them harm.

The expanding nature of “university life” vlogger culture may be helpful to students, researchers, and institutions seeking to improve student experiences, but there is work to be done to ensure that such vlogger culture does not simply reinforce inequalities.

Dr Francesca Sobande
Senior Lecturer in Digital Media Studies
Jeevan Kaur
Journalism, Media and English Literature (BA)

June/July 2022