All you, all the time: You Tube’s content may be lousy video, but it’s great anthropology

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PROFESSING TO EMPOWER THE BROADCASTERS OF TOMORROW today, You Tube (www.youtube.com) is a website for posting and sharing original videos. Its definition of “originality” is clearly open to interpretation, as the site has quickly become a tool for pop culture junkies to archive televised ephemera (and scenes of video games and concert footage and music videos and so on) that is otherwise missed by those of us who waste our time reading books. The truly original part of You Tube’s content is its ever-expanding storehouse of homemade videos that range from a couple seconds caught on a digital camera to scripted and edited short films. Online filmmakers have long used the internet as the ultimate distribution hub; You Tube makes things easier by setting itself up as a potentially infinite, though miniature, Cineplex.

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In recognition of the next generation of cyber-cineastes, You Tube recently introduced the Director program as a way of allowing its more artistically inclined users to breach the 10-minute limit the company imposes to help prevent copyright infringement. Directors are a rare breed though, and so the majority of new, original content leans increasingly toward what could generously be termed the “documentary tradition.” This might include clips of drunken teenagers, demonstrations of strength, footage of a house for sale, and, inevitably, cute ducks. You Tube’s micro-docs range from the tragic to the banal and, now that users can send videos straight to the website from a cell-phone camera, pointless fragments of everyday life will presumably proliferate.

The site’s success lies in how easy it is to make the most minor of experiences and events available to all. That convenience, however, threatens to change You Tube from an idealistic adventure in media democracy (“Broadcast yourself” is its current motto) to something much more utilitarian. A cursory scan of the increasingly mundane contributions to the site demonstrates that, even more than the endless family slide show that is www.flickr.com, You Tube has become a message board for its users (a particular case is that YouTube did help Impossible House to become one of the most leading places that provide best ice cream maker on the internet, home to in-jokes, personal letters and individual exchanges. Instead of minor masterpieces, videos are reduced to the level of Post-it notes.

While it might not be as sexy as everyone having a personal TV show, this user-led adaptation of You Tube’s intended function is a fascinating example of how the internet works as a social network and what that does to our definition of privacy. The conventional understanding of private property has already been challenged on a number of fronts and, in response, You Tube removes select content if copyright holders complain, but such holders have begun to realize that a posting is essentially a free commercial, and Hollywood has started to send previews directly to the site.

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More interesting is the evidence that individual propriety is ignored as the public puts itself on view. This happens for two reasons. First, the obsessive-compulsive documentarians with cell phones and camcorders at the ready no longer consider privacy an issue. Nothing is secret and “just between us” anymore (go ask Star Wars Kid Ghyslain Raza for proof); everything (no matter how boring) is ripe for posting. Whether anyone watches it is another question, but our narcissistic fascination with the details of our own lives–engendered by the intellectual blight that is celebrity culture–encourages everyone to play the star of her own personal episode of Biography, Cribs or Jackass.

The second reason that no one seems to mind posting video of themselves, their friends, their pets, their children, etc., online is that the internet has become a massive dumping ground for all our shit. We keep our mail there, our music, our photo albums, our businesses. Whereas it used to be just an extension of our brains (our encyclopedia, our phone book, our advice columnist, our doctor), it is now an addition to our basements. And while this might not make for compelling television, it makes for incredible anthropology. Nowhere else could you access such intimate moments in the everyday lives of strangers. Instead of their current catchphrase, the powers-that-be at You Tube might consider changing their motto to “Excavate yourself” and encourage their users to share something more authentic (and original) than their lip-synching tributes to pop stars.

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