Video Issue: What do viral videos say about us?
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VIDEO What brings down a presidential campaign, makes Stephen Colbert break out his lightsabers, and inspires protest in Oakland and Tehran? The alpha and omega of online video: YouTube and my camera phone equal a jillion eyeballs and our itchy mouse finger clicking "Play" and passing it on. All those moments, all those sticky little memes, are now forever linked and embedded in the cultural fabric, touchstones certain to become engrained in our collective unconscious as the grainy image of the Beatles playing Ed Sullivan or the Challenger exploding on camera.

At all of five years old, YouTube can claim more than 2 billion views a day. Twenty-four hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute and admittedly few of those snippets find traction in the stream of life. Yet the evolution of online video is just beginning. So say knowledgeable observers like Jennie Bourne, author of Web Video: Making It Great, Getting It Noticed.

"Viral has become a dirty word in Web video because people's concerns in going viral tend to be linked to trying to monetize a web video, and very often a video that's getting a lot of views is not making a lot of money," Bourne explains. And while the rise of citizen broadcast journalists and DIY documentarians is laudable, she adds, "I have to say the flip side of that — people walking around with cameras on their foreheads all the time video blogging — can get a little boring without a structure and style. I think there will be a shakeout at one point, and Web video will mature. It's not there yet — it's effective as a distribution medium and effective as a social medium but still developing as a commercial medium."

For now, what do some of the last five or even (gasp) 10 years' most widely distributed viral videos say about this generation's particular sickness?

With the advent of camera phones, the revolution will be webcast Is it any surprise that moving images activate us more than words? The outrage over the BART station shooting of Oscar Grant was fueled by the sights captured by viewers with camera phones. Six months after Grant's death, the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan during the Iranian election protests was captured by multiple observers, causing it to become a flashpoint for reformists and activists. The videos depicting what one Time writer described as "probably the most widely witnessed death in human history" ended up winning last year's George Polk Award for Videography.

Pre-online video, the mainstream news media likely would have shielded the public from these images in the interest of so-called public decency. But the availability of these videos online — and the reaction they generated — triggered a rethink. The shadowy online presence of the beheading videos made by Islamist terrorists following 9/11 might have prepared some for the horrors of the very real faces of death, but obviously the intent behind more recent spontaneous acts of DIY documentation has been radically different. Consider this the nonviolent, amateur response to Homeland Security-approved surveillance — a quickly-posted flipside to the filter of traditional journalism.

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