Tuesday, December 29, 2009

#4 - YouTube

It was the decade when...

We got a whole new kind of boob tube to waste our time on.

Once upon a time there was no YouTube. That time: 2004. Not so long ago. YouTube released its Beta version in February of 2005. It officially launched in November of that year. By 2006 it was impossible to imagine life without the site. I think the wheel took longer to be embraced upon invention. By the end of 2006, TIME magazine was calling "You" the person of the year and everything from entertainment to politics had been transformed by the still nascent website. Though there had long been video on the Internet, the perception of the World Wide Web pre aught-five was still that of a primarily text based interface. YouTube was a major catalyst in turning the internet into the multimedia platform it is today. The site was the most democratic form of media distribution ever invented, handing to the laymen the opportunity to turn their private home videos and amateur mini-movies into cultural phenomenon at no cost whatsoever. Sure competition was stiff but, when a video did break through the cacophonous din and "went viral," shared from one user to the next like an internet social disease, the impact was felt from coast to coast, water-cooler conversations all but dominated by suggestions of clips to view.

Given the multiplicity of content on YouTube, its interesting that the website still has the reputation of being, essentially, the worlds biggest interactive collection of America's Funniest Home Videos. Though there is no Bob Sagat lurking about making cornball jokes, it is true that many of YouTube's biggest smashes were of this low-fi, pratfall variety: Cats playing piano, skateboarders flying off of ramps, Helen Keller falling of the stage in an amateur production of The Miracle Worker (my personal favorite). The more asinine the better, America's appetite for the silly knew no limits. And, given YouTube's five-minute video time limit, such easily digestible folderol made sense.

While these videos are without question a popular dimension of YouTube's appeal, the power of the website resides elsewhere. In the political arena gaffes by candidates are inevitable. Only in the aughts however could a gaffe be recorded once and then easily accessed by millions of users over and over and over again. (And linked to on Facebook pages and blogged about and twittered and....) Those campaigns not hip to this sea change often found themselves embarrassed and recoiling, like incumbent Virginia Senatorial candidate George Allen who, caught on tape in 2006 using the racial slur "macaca" at a rally, was later forced to apologize for the slip. Yeah, he lost. Many other such political moments got the YouTube treatment, changing the democratic process in America forever.

Creative entrepreneurs have also taken advantage of the site, in some cases transforming their YouTube videos into full-blown careers. Performer Liam Sullivan went from unknown to comedic sensation when he posted his now classic "Shoes" music video on YouTube in 2006. When Philadelphia videographer James Rolfe began comically reviewing the bottom-of-the-barrel video games of his youth, the persona of "The Angry Video Game Nerd" was born. Rolfe even had a cool theme song. Before long he was hired by gametrailers.com to be an exclusive feature of the site. Jeffery Self and Cole Escola were two unemployed 20-something friends just bored enough one day to start posting irreverent YouTube clips under the moniker the VGL Gay Boys. After a video about gay marriage in California went viral their popularity skyrocketed. Hollywood came a-knocking and before long the duo had their own TV show on Logo television, a gay Rowan and Martin for the internet age. The VGL Gays Boys, like Liam Sullivan and the Angry Video Game Nerd, are but a few examples of the awesome opportunities granted anyone with a computer and imagination in the 21st Century. The world of YouTube is littered with such success stories.

YouTube created its own universe of memes. Reaction videos to 2 Girls, 1 Cup being a paradigmatic example, much of YouTube became a matter of call and response in the aughts; a single video inspiring a slew of responses, remixes and parodies. Yes it was funny when we heard the audio tape of Christian Bale excoriating a crew member on the Terminator set, a verbal parade of purple profanity and mean-spirited sarcasm to make David Mamet envious. It was even funnier, however, when the clip was overlaid onto the viral sensation "David at the Dentist," the whole becoming so much more than the sum of its parts. Even narcotic use was effected by the site; the (legal) psychtropic Salvia came to be known as the "YouTube drug," the substances five-minute high perfect for recording and uploading for all the world to see. Video trends took on a life of their own. Beyonce's Single Ladies dance is almost better known because of its myriad parodies than for the original video itself. Yes, the aughts were a decade when pop culture could be endlessly rejiggered to one's own taste. After Chris Cocker gained national attention for screaming "Leave Britney Alone!" into his computer screen it was hours, not days, before parodies started to proliferate YouTube. Even celebrities like Seth Green got into the act with his own spoof of Cocker's teary-eyed missive, acutely aware that going viral is the way to stay relevant in 21st Century media.

The amount of content on YouTube now is staggering. Getting ever closer to the fantasy of watching whatever you want to, whenever you want to, and for free, YouTube has changed media consumption forever. Not one to let a major internet hub fall into other hands, Internet giant Google purchased YouTube in 2006 for over a billion dollars, eventually discontinuing their own YouTube-esque service "Google Video." With camera phones now offering instant YouTube uploading there will be no limits to peoples ability to document and share their lives with the world. Hell, we're there now. YouTube was the aughts' most perspicuous example of the paradigm shift toward user-driven content in mass media. The question is whether at the end of the next decade there will be any big-media left whatsoever, or will YouTube be all; the whole of media completely decentralized and fragmented yet located and uploaded onto one website? It's possible.

You AUGHT to remember.

1 comment:

  1. Something more recent that has happened with YouTube has been how people in the streets of Iran have been able to post videos of what's going on in the street... and to think, just 3 or 4 years ago this wouldn't have been possible. I wonder if the current protests would even have the same momentum they do now if not for YouTube (and cell phones and the Internet and so on)