The YouTube Devolution

Once upon a time, it would have meant something to have watched the Zidane head-butt in the World Cup final

Once upon a time, it would have meant something to have watched the Zidane head-butt in the World Cup final live on TV. I did see it. I missed the first 85 minutes or so of the match, then tuned in for the critical juncture. Pow! Right there.

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But who cared? The blow was right there—and there—and there: Almost instantly, it was all over YouTube. Anyone in the world could click and replay it. It didn’t matter when or where.

I already knew this when I’d watched the moment live. I realized what YouTube was doing to television when I found myself watching Dennis Miller as he conducted a post-performance interview with the now-canonized turn-of-the-90’s band the Pixies on his talk show. He strolled up to the mike and introduced himself to the lead singer, Black Francis.

“Black, I’m Embarrassingly White Dennis,” Mr. Miller said, and I cringed. Fourteen years after the fact.

The thing about television used to be that once you saw it, it was gone. It was disposable, and it was mostly dispensed with—the old signals, from what we used to watch, streaming out past the Oort Cloud, carrying Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp away into infinity.

Print could aim to be stolid and enduring, piling up in libraries or, at worst, on microfiche. TV made its getaway. If you weren’t right there and watching with everyone else when something happened, you didn’t see it. Reruns or syndication could give you another chance, but you still had to catch the moment.

The VCR only stalled it a little. Your friend’s mother could watch her stories on Saturday, after working the day shift all week. If somebody had had a tape running, you might get to rewatch a Tyson fight or when that dude broke Geraldo’s nose with the chair, until somebody forgot which tape it was or recorded over it.

After that, people would do what they did with everything on TV: talk about it for a while, then mostly forget about it. TV moved on, in its infinitely renewable present. The main points—Kojak: bald guy—went into the collective consciousness; the rest faded into the dimness of individual semiconsciousness.

Suddenly, via YouTube links, those lost moments click back into view, as if a telegram from your great-grandfather were showing up in your e-mail. When the Pixies popped up on my laptop, playing on Dennis Miller, I was transported: I was standing in front of my dorm-room television, 14 years in the past, in the peach-tinged glare of an early-generation halogen torchiere. The Pixies more or less invented what would be called alternative rock, but broke up before it finished becoming a viable commercial category; they were not a band you heard much on the radio, let alone saw on a talk show.

I felt a gleeful kick as Black Francis scurried up to the mike and announced they were covering a “Reid Brothers song”—a secret handshake to us viewers who not only knew the Jesus and Mary Chain, but knew the Jesus and Mary Chain’s names. The band tore through “Head On,” just like they’d torn through it in 1992.

But then Mr. Miller—the sly rebel comedian, the Saturday Night Live legend, who knew enough to book the Pixies on his own show—came over to greet them. And he was … a tool. He was smarmy; he was stilted; his floppy West Coast suit was ridiculous. He wasn’t funny.

He wasn’t funny? I was sure Dennis Miller was funny in 1992. I remembered it. He came on funny in the 80’s, with force. We all watched “Weekend Update” and recited back the best parts between bells on 10th-grade Mondays. Then when we were in college, the talk show was funny too, even if it did bomb. He only descended into unfunniness over the next decade, taking the wrong projects, hardening into a cranky, right-wing bore. But I knew he was funny before that, just like people knew Brando wasn’t a fat blob in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Nope. He was lousy. YouTube had him dead to rights. There was another clip of him, from earlier, sitting down with David Letterman at the height of his SNL fame. Mr. Letterman? Funny. Mr. Miller? Lousy, lousy, lousy. Everything that would make him a washout on Monday Night Football was already on display: the obviously canned pop-culture references; the clumsy timing; the attempt to mask his stiffness and incompetence with smugness. What had the 20-year-old me been thinking? How could I have been so wrong?

IN THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON, BOSWELL DESCRIBES the hero having fled the room while someone was reading one of his old works aloud—“and somebody having asked him the reason of this, he replied, ‘Sir, I thought it had been better.’”

Memory has always been a shaky witness. But writing was checkable, to one degree or another. There could be differences of taste or opinion, but there was the text lurking, waiting to settle the question. If you told someone else a piece of writing was good (or gorgeous, or moving, or persuasive), that claim would have to survive the other person’s reading of it.

Reputation or popularity is not enough. I take down a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie from the office shelf: “I seek my identity in toughness—-but it is Morrie’s softness that draws me, and because he does not look at me as a kid trying to be something more than I am, I relax.” See? Crap. Millions of people bought crap.

The Internet left writers more exposed than ever. If you were published from the mid-90’s onward, you ended up in a text-based panopticon: At any time, someone, somewhere, could conceivably be reading something you had written. No longer would people have to go to the library to find old arguments and past errors. Every few months, I get an e-mail from a reader responding to something or other I wrote eight years and three jobs ago. Thanks to a retroactive Web-archiving initiative, a college intern from last summer could crack wise about something I’d written as an undergraduate myself.

Video had always been more elusive. It defeated secondhand reports; a critic might describe a scene, but the moving image was unquotable. There was no way to share that passing experience. All you could do was write about it or talk about it. The original moment was transformed by the telling into something else—probably something funnier or more original or more shocking.

But now the moments—all the moments, even the ones thought lost—have begun looping back around for public inspection. (Welcome back, Welcome Back, Kotter!) People in and on television are learning what writers have been going through. College broadcasting students’ worst blunders are echoing across the Web in perpetuity. Arthur Chi’en says “fuck” on live TV over and over; you can judge for yourself how badly he was provoked (pretty badly). You can relive the bubble-gum commercial wars of the 80’s (they even call them the bubble-gum wars on the Web). You can test which sketch-comedy shows hold up (SCTV, yes; The Kids in the Hall, not so much).

These opportunities represent, in part, a surprise victory for library science. As we plunged into the digital age, one of the great fears was of format obsolescence: People would throw out old-fashioned paper in favor of electronic archives, only to suddenly find that they had all the works of human knowledge stored on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies and nobody was making floppy drives anymore. But with Web video, people are raiding their personal, inaccessible stashes of VHS tapes, winding through them till they find the important bits, and transferring them from a near-obsolete medium to a current one.

So TV’s past is being clipped and replayed and distributed by anyone with a computer, to anyone with a computer—the professional TV product mixed in with home videos and Web-cam feeds and amateur animation. There are too many video sites to keep track of: Google Video, Veoh, iFilm, Evtv1, Gotuit,

YouTube, though, is the one that everyone talks about, even if they’re talking about the other sites. It has the grab-bag quality the good sites had back when the Internet was exciting. It keeps getting busted for copyright problems and throwing out the problem content, as people paste up more and more new stuff.

The other sites may have their advantages: better-synchronized sound and video, cleaner pictures, more violence and nudity than the scrupulously PG-13 YouTube offerings. YouTube, though, is the phenomenon; YouTube is the one the New York Post reported was being bandied about as a billion-dollar property, even though (or because?) it has no discernable revenue model.

It has even already begun acting out the Web-downfall script by being undermined and co-opted. This summer, marketing and publicity took off around video of Mentos dissolving in Diet Coke to make violent fountains—an established Web-vid genre, like parking-lot car-drifting videos. A YouTube competitor, Revver, staked its claim on public attention with the most elaborate Coke-spout clip, and Mentos bought ad space.

YouTube stands as the opposite of old television because, above all, it’s easy. It doesn’t demand that you install a player; it doesn’t crash your browser. It embeds in blogs and plays there, freely.

What it does, then, is break the synchrony of television. It makes television work like text. Last month, on the 20th anniversary of Len Bias’ death, newspaper let me down. The Baltimore Sun had no stories that described the Bias I remembered, the basketball player before he became a cocaine casualty. So I went to YouTube. And there he was, alive if a little blurry, on the court at No. 1 North Carolina, making the greatest sequence of plays I’d ever known: burying a shot, then flashing to steal the inbounds pass, rising up and—with the assurance of a man who did not know what limits were on a basketball court—dunking it, two-handed, in reverse.

ACTUALLY, I HADN’T SEEN THE LEN BIAS steal-and-dunk when it happened. I’d listened to the original moment on the radio. I only ever saw how it looked on occasional replays, if I happened to be watching at the right time.

YouTube dispels the mystical air around witnessing things. The TV audience doesn’t have to stick around.

One moment that the Web hasn’t caught up with yet is the closing of the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. It was late at night, and the ceremony was boring, and I’ve only ever met one other person who saw it: The Calgary mascots, a pair of people dressed as bears dressed as cowboys, skated out, accompanying another mascot under a shroud. This was the secret mascot of Albertville for 1992. It was … L’Chamois! The bears flipped back the shroud, which hooked on the goat horns underneath and sent the whole head of the costume toppling off, backward.

Fewer and fewer events give you that kind of private payoff if you’re there to see them. Now, when a heckler shouts “Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney!” at the Vice President, or Stephen Colbert appalls the audience at the White House Correspondents Dinner, those tiny-audience cable-news incidents propagate online, picking up viewers as they go.

With Web video, you can go back and inhabit the moment of your choosing. You can see the Replacements live, in the early 80’s, with a skinny teenage Paul Westerberg. You can see the legendary Frank Zappa appearance on Crossfire, all 20-plus minutes of it, as he bears the indignation of the anti-smut crusade with the dignity of an only slightly more tetchy version of Jesus, jeered by the mob. America is heading for a “fascist theocracy,” Zappa says, to hoots.

And famously inaccessible or suppressed material is there for the taking. Curious about Heil Honey I’m Home!—the extremely short-lived British television show ironically casting Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun in a deliberately schlocky old-fashioned American sitcom? There it is. (It’s not good.)

The Zapruder film is up, too, in a range of varieties: regular, close-up, steadied. So is the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald—oddly old-fashioned and rinky-dink, as historic events go, with a tiny cast of players, like a community-access show staged by a guy with no friends. Or like a window on a world without television.

But you can’t live without television anymore. The Pixies, at one point, tried to defy it—recording an unwatchably tedious music video for their single “Velouria.” It was a single take, in ultra-slow motion, of the band members running across a field of rocks and out of view. In the music-video industry, it was an act of self-immolation: It’s widely held that the video aired only once. As I write this, it has been viewed 2,917 times on YouTube, and someone else has posted a tribute video.

The YouTube Devolution