The Beast With A Billion Eyes

On the Web, anyone with a digital camera has the power to change history

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY SEAN MCCABE

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If YouTube provides distribution, the YouTube community's value-add is attention, finding significance in moments and creations that media gatekeepers shrug off. In 2005, the now defunct WB network rejected Nobody's Watching, a self-referential sitcom about the making of a sitcom (too inside, too confusing, probably too smart). This year the pilot was leaked to YouTube, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers who raved about it. It was promptly bought by NBC. In Washington or Hollywood, the days when you could expect your bad decisions to disappear into the mists of time are disappearing. Somebody's watching.

IT'S A MICROSCOPE. Web video proved the perfect medium for watching world news in extreme close-up, through video diaries from Iraq, Israel and Lebanon. Even with major news stories, TV news is constrained by budget and time concerns. Not so YouTubeland: 30 viewers or 30 million, it stays on the air, and the only limit is the enthusiasm of the uploader. So while mainstream media offered the sweeping panorama, video diaries took us where TV couldn't or wouldn't--running into air-raid shelters in the Israel-Hizballah war, crouching behind an armored vehicle with a soldier in Samarra, bullets dinging into metal off camera.

Most of the videos are poorly lit and badly composed. And they convey the confusion of war far better than expensive, competent TV. Journalists are trained to make sense, to frame stories and order facts, smoothing over random happenings and odd twists. In Web video, war is not a playing out of political-historical forces. It's Marine engineers sloshing down an improvised waterslide in a MySpace video. It's a soldier kicking back with an "Iraqi freedom cigar." In a terrifying, seven-minute YouTube clip, it's riding in the cab with a civilian driver as his truck takes fire and breaks down. "Come help me out!" he shouts to his military escort as the camera dives under the dashboard with him. "I'm going home when this s___'s done. When this s___'s done I'm f______ out of here!" On YouTube, war is also, appropriately, unbleeped.

IT'S A SOAPBOX. Senator Allen's videographer, S.R. Sidarth, wasn't a disinterested observer. He worked for Allen's opponent, Jim Webb, whose campaign posted the video and used YouTube to fan the controversy expertly (and cheaply). YouTubers discovered the site's political power, from pundits to satirists making "mashups" (intercutting, say, a Dick Cheney speech with lines from Scarface).

Creative Response Concepts, the political-consultant group that gave us Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, produced online video against a Missouri stem-cell-research amendment this fall; next month it's opening a YouTube division. "It's basically the 21st century equivalent of direct mail," says CRC president Greg Mueller. The most effective YouTube spot in the Missouri election, however, was a TV ad with Michael J. Fox, which became an online sensation when Rush Limbaugh mocked Fox (who has tremors from Parkinson's disease) on his radio show. The ad got more than 2 million views and turned a state race into a national controversy. Does this mean that YouTube decided the midterm elections? There's no way of proving that. But given that control of the Senate turned on a few thousand votes in a few states, it's hardly far-fetched.

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