In 1991, when a bystander videotaped the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the incident was almost unbelievable--not the violence but the recording of it. Imagine! That four policemen would pummel a subdued man, and someone would just happen to have a camera! What were the odds?
Do a YouTube search today on the term police brutality, and you get more than 780 videos, from Houston, Hungary, Egypt and beyond. This is just one sign of how much YouTube--and similar video-sharing sites--has changed the flow of information. People have had cameras for decades and Web access for years. It's the combination of two simple things--easy, cheap recording and easy, free distribution--that makes YouTube so potent and its impact so complex. It's not just a new medium; it's several in one.
IT'S A SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM. If you credit YouTube with revolutionizing the media, you must first credit every cell-phone company that has handed out deep-discount videophones like Cracker Jack prizes; they've turned us into a culture of Zapruders. When millions have the power to quickly, easily send any image around the world, you have something akin to global telepathy. (The cell-phone messages from 9/11 victims were chilling enough; imagine the visuals, had the attacks happened in 2006.)
It was a comedy fan's camera phone, for instance, that caught Michael Richards spewing racial slurs at African-American hecklers. Incidents like this are wearing away the distinction between amateur and professional photojournalists. As Clay Shirky of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program puts it, "It's hard to argue that a paparazzi is more of a photojournalist than the person who takes a picture of the London train bombing and uploads it."
But if YouTube made celebrities and journalists nervous, it was open season on politicians. Montana Senator Conrad Burns became a YouTube star for nodding off in a Senate hearing; Democratic Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, for getting a smooch on the cheek from President George W. Bush. (Burns lost re-election; Lieberman won but only after losing the primary.) Stage-managed politics became reality TV, and veteran pols seemed unsure what had hit them. When you watch Virginia Senator George Allen calling a rival's camera-wielding staff member a macaca--a reputed racial slur that may have made the difference in his razor-thin loss--he seems, in retrospect, almost pitiable, like the first proud, doomed lion ever to stare down a hunter with a rifle.
IT'S A SPOTLIGHT. When TV comic Stephen Colbert addressed the 2006 White House correspondents' dinner, his searingly sarcastic "defense" of the President drew nervous laughter and awkward silence. Journalists in the room said he bombed. And that verdict might have been final, had the performance not been ripped from C-SPAN and uploaded to YouTube. To online fans familiar with The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, the pained reception was part of the act. And to this vast audience, it killed. The ensuing debate (Was he funny? Was he rude? Was the press corps out of touch?) kept his critique in the news for days.