Video Issue: What do viral videos say about us?
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.
We appreciate raw talent There's the professional article, like the demo tape of Jeremy Davies' lengthy Charles Manson improvisation. But viewers often prefer to feed on more unvarnished talent-show-esque efforts: the stoic, high-geek style of Tay Zonday's "Chocolate Rain," or Eli Porter of "Iron Mic" infamy. As one aficionado said of the latter, Porter is an "enigma, for no one knows where the FUCK Eli is! His battle was done in 2003, and he sort of vanished, leaving legions of fans wanting more." The invisible — both the private ritual and the would-be performer striving for a public — is made visible. This is why recent clips such as a little girl dunking through her legs or the "Dick Slang" video of circle-jerking hip-hoppers shaking their penii like hula hoops are so wickedly sticky.
The reveal can't be concealed You can't hide your anger management issues, whether you're a Chinese woman punching and kicking on Muni or Bill O'Reilly flipping out about getting played out with a Sting song ("We'll do it live! Fuck it!"). Nor can you forget that pesky Katie Couric clip if you're Sarah Palin: the notorious snippet of the wannabe vice president attempting to explain her nonexistent foreign policy experience lives on in a YouTube feature box. If you decide to get more than 1,000 prisoners in the Philippines to replicate the "Thriller" video, rope a slew of tarted-up tots to do the "Single Ladies" routine, or organize a flash mob of dancers for your (500) Days of Summer-cheesy proposal in New York City's Washington Square Park, you can bet it won't stay a secret. Especially when a good portion of the bystanders blocking your shot are hoisting up cameras and phones of their own.
We like to play with our food and gobble pet vids The dancing fountains of "Diet Coke and Mentos" and the elegiac meltdowns of so many innocent, candy-colored sundaes and 'sicles in "The Death & Life of Ice Cream" rock our pop, though they're no match for sneezing baby pandas, dramatic chipmunks, very vocal cats, and dogs either verbalizing, skateboarding, or balloon-munching.
Passion counts Especially when it comes to Chris Crocker's "Leave Britney Alone" protestations, Obama Girl's undulations, the kakapo parrot shagging a hapless nature photographer's skull, and Zach Galifianakis' hilariously bad "Between Two Ferns" interviews. Even Soulja Boy's vlogs, in which the pop tell-'em-all cranks the virtues of the Xbox, seem obsessed — with getting the viewer's attention. That also goes for the "Numa Numa" xloserkidx singing along to O Zone's "Dragostea Din Tei" and the twirling, ducking, and capering Canadian high-schooler in the "Star Wars Kid" video, which marketing company the Viral Factory estimates has been viewed more than 900 million times.
Just gird yourself for the edit "Star Wars Kid" is one primo example: it inspired Stephen Colbert to kick off a viral loop of his own, challenging viewers to edit and enhance the green-screen video tribute of his own lightsaber routine. No one is exempt from a little creative tinkering, an inspired tweak or 2,000, be it "Longcat"; Ted Levine in Silence of the Lambs; or pre-YouTube animated vid "All Your Base Are Belong To Us," the classic mother of all video hacks, where images ranging from beer ads to motel signs are Photoshopped with the Zero Wing Engrish subtitle. And you thought the remix was dead.