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Why Should YouTube Change The World?

November 30, 2007

In a curious little article in the London Free Press, online editor Dan Brown says that "YouTube won’t really change the world until it produces an icon."
Speaking of the universal sticking power of George Lucas' Darth Vader character from Star Wars, Brown goes on to posit that "The test of YouTube’s cultural relevance and staying power will be if one of the many people who post videos to the website can do what Lucas has achieved with his evil cyborg."

This seems like a strange way to look at both the idea of cultural relevance and the raison d'etre of YouTube. YouTube is, like network TV and movies, a content medium. It's an empty vessel whose meaning in and of itself is irrelevant. It's the content on the site that has currency. But it's reach is quite different to that of TV and film.

To suggest that YouTube is merely a descendent of "America’s Funniest Home Videos, itself the descendant of Candid Camera, itself the descendant of Candid Mircophone" as Brown does is similarly to misunderstand the point of YouTube. Unlike its supposed forbears, YouTube is completely open. Anyone can post a video on the site. America’s Funniest Home Videos and Candid Camera didn't follow the same model. They were network programs. The content was selected by a handful of people. And none of the content was particularly creative. These shows really don't have much in common with YouTube. I'd say they were closer to today's reality TV shows than anything else.

Lucas didn't solidify the cultural relevance of film as a medium with Darf Vader. So the comparison between YouTube favorites like the Vader spoof Chad Vader (which re-imagines the Lord of the Sith made famous in the Star Wars sixology as the day-shift manager of a Wisconsin grocery store in a series of short films) doesn't make sense.

The strength of YouTube is its sheer range and the creativity it inspires in many of the people who post to it. In just the last week, I've used clips on the site to research a performer whom I'm writing a feature about (there's a revealing video of his last show on YouTube taken shortly before he was sent to jail.) Inspired by a Wagner junkie in New York, I've caught part of a 1970s Ring Cycle. I've watched a very young Hugh Laurie attempt to perform a speech from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida while being constantly corrected by an equally youthful Stephen Frye. And, indeed, my guilty pleasure of the week has been a short stop-motion animated film featuring a Vader character trying to order a plate of Penne Arabiata in the Death Star canteen.

What I'm trying to say is that I hope YouTube never does produce an enduring cultural icon. It's strength lies in its massive size and variety -- it's ability provide an outlet for every possible interest. I'm guessing that Dan Brown hasn't read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. He'd probably change his mind about YouTube if he did.

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