The oldest video on Youtube was uploaded five years ago. It is called: “me at the zoo.” It shows, simply, one of the founders of Youtube at the zoo. “Here we are, in front of the elephants,” a young(er) Jawed Karim says, and that’s about it. It has been watched over a million times.
And that’s not remarkable.
Five years after its gestation, and almost four years since it became a sensation, Youtube is now more than a Web site – it’s a medium. Originally conceived as a way for friends to share home videos with other friends, it’s evolved into a sort of A/V multi-tool. While Youtube has its obvious merits, like providing the fodder for endless internet memes and viral marketing, it has endless unconventional uses.
For instance, Youtube is an excellent depository of music videos. Even though videos are constantly being taken down due to copyright issues, new compromises like Vevo channels have ensured a sort of permanency for label-approved music videos. So, who needs MTV? With Youtube, your own “TRL” is at your fingertips – and you have the power to replay or click out if you’re tired of it.
This easy access to the hits is awesome, especially for parties (if you haven’t hooked up your laptop to the TV or speaker system at the party house, you haven’t lived). But Youtube has another great use for those with musical interests: b-sides and rarities.
No longer does the music fetishist have to scour record stores for long-lost vinyls; no longer do you have to dig around in dusty bins, hoping for a worthwhile discovery. Record enthusiasts from around the world have taken to recording their special finds, making obscure music available to the masses and reinvigorating bygone artists.
It’s almost like magic – where else could I have found uncharted doo-wop and Northern soul? Before Youtube, the journey might have been the endeavor of a lifetime. Now, when I click on one old soul classic, I’m directed to a whole slew of related songs. The thrill of discovery is not forgotten, merely compressed into a singular moment of bliss.
Youtube is also a fantastic archive of old video clips. This experience is more nightmare than dreamworld; the past is fun to listen to, but watching it is like the bad end of a drug trip. This is evidenced in everything from banned cartoons to old commercials, but it reaches its apex in a project called “Everything is Terrible,” a kitschy video archival project filed under “BargainBinofOblivion.”
“Everything is Terrible” shows us the (sickly entertaining) horror of infomercials, child stars, ‘90s work-out tapes, anti-drug PSAs and Christian evangelists. But even outside of the extremes, old videos are fascinating to watch; you can only wonder what future generations will snicker at when they pull up pieces of our current pop culture.
In the future, will we be judged by our videos? Is this the way that people will learn about our society? After all, Youtube is used for more than music discoveries – it can be used for digging deeper into any topic. Rather than reading a book about a subject (and, as an English major, this is sacrilege for me to admit), you can just search Youtube for a treasure trove of first-hand accounts.
With more and more videos being uploaded every day (150,000 to be exact), Youtube has become an archival service for anything and everything, even things that wouldn’t previously be considered important. Youtube is great for jogging your memory, like a giant net that catches the fragments of pop culture snagged in your brain – what’s that one commercial that used to come on all the time? What did Carlton’s dance on “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” look like again? In what context does Clark Gable say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn?”
However, Youtube even fulfills its original purpose – videos filmed of friends and family, for friends and family. Thus, Youtube at a glance has a fascinating mix; every moment, from the trivial to the historical, can be preserved. The biggest events are chronicled from multiple points of view, in differing levels of quality. The smallest events are elevated beyond their previously trivial status.
Take, for instance, a video that I uploaded my freshman year at UCI. It’s called “alex has no arms,” and it delivers exactly what it promises: a six-second clip of my friend Alex, who is wiggling his arms inside his jacket sleeves so that he looks limbless. As he does so, a phone rings, and another friend notes, “Your phone’s ringing.” This video, inexplicably, has over 2,500 views. A lot of them are in Germany.
This stupid little moment is now archived, now until forever (or until Youtube’s servers shut down). In being mixed in with the monumental, I would argue that even the super-trivial – yes, even the most inane vlog – becomes important. The past is made present, again and again.
Even though I loathe vlogs, I admit that there seems to be a natural impulse driving them. As The Kinks said, “People take pictures of each other just to prove that they really existed.” And ultimately, what’s more convincing? The static image, or the living image? Here, this is me, and not just me at a glance, this is me at 15 frames per second.
Recording each other seems to be an effort to become more real to each other – an aching effort, since our interactions increasingly consist of mere frames, mere text, mere pixels.
Youtube has become more than a mark of our cultural zeitgeist: it is increasingly becoming the maker of it.