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Broadcast Yourself - YouTube Culture
In 1938, Orson Welles created mass panic with his adaptation of War of the Worlds. The radio dramatisation was done in the format of a news broadcast and had audiences hiding in cellars for fear of being caught by the Martian invasion. It sounds ridiculous that people could confuse what was so clearly fiction for fact.
Yet everyday on the internet, discussions rage about whether what they are seeing is real. Reading the comments posted online in response to a video made by ‘LonelyGirl15’, it seems that very little has changed. Arguments rage about whether her story, posted in short one minute film clips, is true, or whether she and her story are fake.
Four years ago, if somebody had said the words ‘you tube’ to me I would have thought they were making a joke about my intelligence. But since its launch in February 2005, YouTube, the online video sharing community, has been riding the crest of a wave of new generation internet sites, known as Web2.0.
Every day people watch more than 70 million videos on the site, which plays host to everything including adolescent video weblogs (or vlogs, recorded experiments involving Coke and mints, homemade music videos, even accounts by soldiers of the war in Iraq. In this instance it seems that people are the currency of worth, and that web communities are of more than just monetary value. Although the site makes virtually no money, Google paid $1.65billion for the site and Time Magazine gave it the 2006 award for the best new invention. It is clear that YouTube, created by Americans Steve Chen and Chad Hurley in a garage in California, is something quite remarkable.
The site’s strapline is ‘Broadcast Yourself’. Gone are the days of keeping your private life quiet. The ordinary makes good entertainment - Big Brother, and all the other fly-on-the-wall documentaries are a testament to that. Now nobody needs Simon Cowell or Sharon Osbourne to propel them to global stardom. Fame and celebrity, even notoriety and infamy can be found on the web. The ‘top video’ of all time has been watched more than 35 million times. It is of an obscure comedian, Judson Laippley, performing a six-minute history of dance from Elvis to the present day. It is unlikely that even the most famous stand-up comedians would ever have an audience that large, or gain it in such a short space of time.
‘YouTube’ is not just about do-it-yourself fame. Web2.0 communities allow people to reinvent themselves. People can adopt alternative identities and portray the parts of their lives that are the most entertaining. LonelyGirl15 is one of the most watched video posters of all time on YouTube, whether what she says in her vlogs is true or not. She has been posting homemade videos of around 1 minute long for the past six months and other vloggers like Gemmers19 and Danielbeast are posting responses that add to the storyline. Her webcasts are a soap opera in miniature form with an audience of thousands.
The opportunity to create a second life for yourself, to tell the world that you are something different from how you are perceived in your day to day life, is powerful. This seems to be characteristic of Web2.0 sites. Every video on ‘YouTube’, every ‘Myspace’ profile, every entry on Wikipedia says ‘please notice me’. Users gain a sense of identity from these online, virtual, web-hosted communities.
The possibility that you can be reinvented on the web, that every time you get bored of your latest identity you can change it and start again seems schizophrenic. However, in a world where there are so many options and choices, so many ‘truths’, who can blame the ‘YouTube’ generation for choosing to believe what is fictional, and for wanting to create their own reality in a virtual space. Certainly if the truth you make is easier and more pleasant than the truth that really is, who wouldn’t want to exchange the two?
‘YouTube’ may be full of daft people pulling stupid faces, scarily haired youths beatboxing, illegal clips of blockbuster movies, and homemade music videos, but it also offers the possibility of eternal reinvention, however transient those identities might prove to be. Enjoying fiction always means suspending belief; but getting engrossed in an episode of ‘Eastenders’ is relatively harmless in comparison to what might happen in the minds of vulnerable people when the edges of what is real begins to blur with what is not.
Johanna Derry was a full-time church youth worker for four years and is now a trainee journalist at the University of Central Lancashire.