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YouTube Is Only Five Years Into a Great Transformation

Five years of YouTube adds up to a pile of keyboard-playing cats, wannabe singing stars, and self-serving politician posts. Not to mention all of those three-year-olds thwapping Dad in the crotch with plastic waffle bats. Ouch.

YouTube started as "a place where you could broadcast yourself," the company says at its blog. It evolved into a genuine platform for a range of uses: from grainy vlog entries to HD and 3D broadcasts by major media. To say that it is a monumental achievement in technology and human creativity is to understate the obvious. Fittingly, YouTube celebrates its own fifth birthday by inviting users to upload video testimonials about how the platform played a role in their lives.

A lot can be said about YouTube's cultural implications, from insights about the supposed democratization of media to our rampant exhibitionism. But I think that on the basic level of communications history YouTube at the very least helped us treat video in much the same way we used text and images for decades, as a kind of media reflex rather than a specialized form of communication. For those of us who played amateur filmmaker in our basements with three-minute reels of Super 8 stock, video (we called it film) was something hard and expensive to make well. As a result, the recording of moving images was reserved for moments of greater import or for events that conveyed movement and seemed conducive to being filmed.

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Video tape of course made video making cheap and easy (even tiresome). But YouTube gave the format a radically new distribution mechanism that ultimately changed the place we gave video in the panoply of personal communication. At one point in history, literacy (access to text) was reserved for the educated few or clerics. Photography, still and video, was once available only to the wealthy and technically adept. I still recall in the basement of my Grandfather's home a death portrait of my great grandmother taken in her casket. For Italian peasant families like my ancestors, a photographic image was so expensive and extravagant that families only splurged for one as part of a funeral package.

And now we are getting to the point where dashing off a video to express a thought is as easy as scribbling a quick note.

Books and countless scholarly theses have been written about how the democratization of literacy and photography helped change the way we communicated, even perceived and valued one another. In my lifetime Susan Sontag's brilliant On Photography pondered how the frozen image affected culture itself. "The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own," she said. YouTube's remarkable rise is a reminder just how close we are to an age when video becomes a person-to-person media tool capable of evolving yet again our notion of language and communication. We will need another Sontag to really make sense of it.

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