Digital Migration

Digital Migration

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Patricia G. Lange, an anthropologist and associate professor of Critical Studies (undergraduate program) and Visual & Critical Studies (graduate program) at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She is the director of Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2020) and the author of Thanks for Watching: An Anthropological Study of Video Sharing on YouTube (2019). Follow her on Twitter: @pglange.

Digital Migration

By Patricia G. Lange

Migration patterns have long drawn the attention of anthropologists. Contemporary humans and their ancestors have been running across the globe for millennia. As it happens, humans run all over the internet too. In the context of mediated environments, to migrate away from a site means that participants stop using it and instead move on to explore and interact on new internet vistas. The digital migration story as seen through the lens of socially-motivated YouTubers reveals a dynamic kaleidoscope of patterns that shed light on human mediation. A multi-year ethnography of vloggers revealed nuanced and consistent digital migration tendencies. Key questions of interest include: 1) When do people deploy multiple forms of media and “swap them” in and out for social reasons? 2) Under what circumstances do participants more permanently leave one site and go to another, or several others? and 3) How might anthropologists build a collective conversation about digital migration patterns?

The dazzling array of media that is available to many people around the world produces what Madianou and Miller (2012) refer to as a “polymedia” environment. According to this concept, when people have access to media such that price, availability, and digital skills are not factors in deciding uptake of a technology or influencing consistent usage, people “socialize” media. In other words, aspects of dealing with relationships and sociality more centrally influence how and why a particular medium is selected. People choose from a “plurality of media which supplement each other and can help overcome the shortcomings of a particular medium” (Madianou and Miller 2012: 8). Madianou and Miller studied people who were not economically privileged. Yet, they had access to a “plethora” of media, and their decisions about which medium to use revealed much about their relationships and sociality. For example, people might choose email over a phone call to avoid unpleasant confrontation in a particular relationship. Participants use social and emotional criteria to select particular media from an array of choices that are equally available and plausible for them to use. 

Media choice is at times influenced by personal factors that index issues of control. Research on young people on YouTube suggested that participants tended to display “media dispositions” in that they strongly preferred certain media and avoided others (Lange 2014). For example, in a study of “digital youth,” one study participant said she would never post of a video of herself on YouTube. She said, “I don’t really like the idea of anyone in the world being able to watch me do something.” Despite being able to participate on YouTube infrastructurally and economically, her media disposition clearly showed that recording YouTube videos of herself was not desirable. Her reasoning suggests that what appears to be a personal choice was also influenced by aspects of sociality. She preferred to control her image vis-à-vis larger populations by withholding it. Ultimately, she preferred to engage with YouTuber as a viewer.

Interview narratives from a study of adult users of YouTube who used the site socially in its early years, also reveal instances of how participants took advantage of alternative types of media to “overcome the shortcomings” of YouTube. My ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2020) was filmed at grass roots meet-ups across the United States (and one in Canada) in which observations of participants’ interactions as well as ethnographic interviews revealed important information about YouTube sociality through video. 

In the film, interviewees describe how they used the live video chat service of Stickam to deepen their social connections and simply have fun with other YouTubers. Stickam (2005 – 2013) was a live video chat service that enabled participants to see and communicate with other people simultaneously through video feeds. It offered a limited number of “boxes” or windows containing the live feed of several participants, as well as an option for text chat. In one meet-up in Toronto depicted in the film, a live Stickam chat session was displayed on a very large screen, thus enabling in-person participants to enjoy interacting with remote YouTubers who could not attend the gathering.

Screenshots from Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2020) by Patricia G. Lange

Interviewees in my ethnographic study noted that they enjoyed participating on Stickam because it felt more “live” or present than YouTube’s asynchronous atmosphere. Interviewees also noted that responses times were far more rapid on Stickam than on YouTube, in terms of receiving feedback on videos. Instead of waiting for two or three weeks for feedback on a posted video, YouTubers could get responses immediately and interactively through video chat. Burgess and Green (2018 [2009]: 101) made a similar observation and characterized Stickam as a “supplement” or “plug in” to YouTube, thus illustrating the “polymedia” aspect of YouTube and Stickam.

Screenshots from Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2020) by Patricia G. Lange

Unlike other documentaries that are character driven, Hey Watch this! is constructed in a modular way around themes of YouTubers’ experiences when using an array of media. Two themes that clearly emerged from the interview narratives were reflections on where participants saw the “real me” located across different types of media, and their views on the status of their YouTube participation over time. Some YouTubers felt that they could be more their “real selves” on Stickam as opposed to YouTube, which felt less live and was more public. Interviewees expressed concern about having their videos exposed to hostile audiences and “haters,” or people who post mean-spirited or pointless comments or insults. Initially, their use of Stickam represented a pattern more consistent with being in a polymedia environment. Later on, however, their concerns about YouTube and its monetization trajectory prompted them to greatly reduce their participation on the site. They began migrating to other social media such as Twitter.

Hey Watch This! documents the results of a multi-year ethnography. Although it is not always feasible, long-term ethnographic projects offer certain advantages. Sociologist Henri Lefebvre (2004) draws on a rubric he termed “rhythm analysis” to analyze cycles or patterns of behavior, a lens which is productively applied in studying internet migratory patterns. A long-term engagement enables the ethnographer to see large-scale patterns or cycles of interaction that are not necessarily visible when studying a group over a few short months. For example, when I began filming the documentary, YouTubers were very excited about using the site in social ways, to bond with other people in shared “communities of interest” such as those who wished to learn about video, or who shared similar difficult life experiences. By the end of the filming, interviewees expressed dismay over YouTube’s highly commercialized environment and told me they were no longer participating on the site with the same intensity. A long-term engagement helps document the kinds of cycles or patterns that Lefebvre saw as important for understanding the inner workings of society. In this the case the cycle began with initial excitement for the site, proceeded to exhibit a high point of feelings of community with other YouTubers, and then saw a decline a few years later as interest in the site cooled and people moved on to other social media.

A glance at some of their YouTube channels confirmed their self-observations about their dwindling participation on the site. Nuances about digital migration emerged from their narratives. Whereas some participants engaged in “radical migration” in which they made a complete break with YouTube, others engaged in a more “conceptual migration” in which they cooled or stopped using YouTube for the most part, but they brought the “concept” or idea of YouTube sociality to a new site, in this case Twitter (Lange 2019). Mechanisms that support a conceptual migration to Twitter from YouTube included retaining their YouTube channel name on the new site, interacting with other YouTube participants on Twitter, providing links on YouTube to their Twitter channel, and continuing to talk about YouTube and other shared video-related themes of interest on their new social media site.

In a conceptual migration, participation on a particular site such as YouTube may not be completely severed but finds its way onto a new site. One interviewee insisted that his lack of activity on YouTube and his move to Twitter was not a “migration.” He continued to see Twitter as something to use “in addition to” YouTube. Yet, he removed many of his YouTube videos and no longer posts there. Nevertheless, his view clarifies and supports the analysis that YouTube as an idea retains purchase on a new site conceptually. The idea of YouTube never quite goes away even though from a participatory standpoint, a migration has occurred because YouTube is no longer used with consistent intensity.

Screenshots from Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2020) by Patricia G. Lange

Characterizing these patterns and discovering additional nuances will be important for future studies in digital ethnography. YouTubers also spoke of what I refer to as “in-migration” in which people do not leave a site, but rather start a new account within the same site that they feel better reflects their current interests and media persona (Lange 2019). On YouTube, this means opening a new channel and posting new types of videos. Another conceptualization is the idea of “virtual diaspora,” in which a site closes and its participants “flee to other virtual worlds” (Boellstorff 2008: 197). Participants may be very upset and long for a new platform in which to interact. Boellstorff (2008: 197-198) refers to this configuration as a “virtual diaspora.” He also notes that “lesser forms” of virtual diaspora appear when a site simply becomes less popular and participants leave for another site, again illustrating the notion of digital migration.

Use of the word “diaspora” in this context may initially be somewhat controversial for some scholars. To anthropologists, diaspora connote groups of people who are violently or at least suddenly separated from their homeland to which they may never return. Notably, it is certainly possible that groups who are suddenly ejected from their online home world might feel a profound sense of loss and confusion. Clearly strong feelings may accompany the loss of online sites, which may represent a very important social life line for dispersed individuals, especially marginalized people who rely on internet sites to find crucial social support. Loss of an online, anchoring site might well prompt people to experience intense social mourning. Whether such patterns constitute “diaspora” in the emotional sense must be studied in each case. An umbrella term such as digital migration is arguably useful for encompassing many different forms of migration and emotional responses that appear. 

Moving forward, it is important that anthropologists continue a collective conversation about online migration patterns and come to terms with nuances that are revealed. A long-term approach is beneficial in this context given that it may take several years for migratory patterns to be fully revealed. In my observation, intensive participation for some of the YouTubers lasted a few years before they migrated away. Saying good-bye to one site may index a permanent break with most social media, or it may mean saying hello to a new site. Studying such patterns is of value to anthropologists who wish to understand the cultural, social, technical, economic, and other factors that influence how people to choose to share the self through media. My anthropological antennae are receiving strong signals that digital migration will be a fascinating terrain of study for years to come.

Screenshots from Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2020) by Patricia G. Lange


Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Burgess, Jean, and Joshua Green. 2009. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. 

Constine, Josh. 2013. “Scene Kids Cry as Streaming Site Stickam Shuts Down.” TechCrunch. January 31. -shuts-down/. 

Lange, Patricia G. 2019. Thanks for Watching: An Anthropological Study of Video Sharing on YouTube. Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Lange, Patricia G. 2020. Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media. 54 minutes.

Madianou, Mirca, and Daniel Miller. 2012. Migration and New Media: Transnational Families and Polymedia. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Lefebvre, Henri. 2004. Rhythmanalysis. London: Continuum.

“Stickam.” n.d. Wikipedia.

One Reply to “Digital Migration”

  1. That was not a quick read! Interesting though. I too am a digital ethnographer. I am happy to see your work.