Okay, time for a full retraction of my earlier off-the-cuff opinion that professional video did a better job documenting the Japanese tsunami than amateur, user-generated content. Because this video pretty much seals the deal. I won't spend too much time describing this amateur footage of the tsunami hitting the small port town of Kesennuma: suffice it to say, it is simple, incredible and awful, and must be seen to be believed. But I would like to make a couple observations about why it is superior to most other footage I have seen, and also why I think that matters.
One of the most powerful elements of this video, in my opinion, is simply its length: at almost six minutes in length, it is about twice as long as most of the videos of the tsunami I have seen, both professional and UGC. Of course, both professionally-produced videos and UGC which comes to us via news programs are often edited down to highlight certain dramatic moments for broadcast -- and there were indeed plenty of these in the shorter clips, some of which showed whole towns being swept away.
But the decision in favor of brevity sacrifices the impact of longer videos like this one: I honestly feel that -- if you actually sit and watch it from beginning to end -- this video does a much better job of conveying the sheer scale of the event, as the sea just keeps coming, an unending flood whose volume totally defies description or imagination. Reaching for some feeble comparison, it's like the person making this video was dropped in the middle of the Amazon River -- and this is just one spot along the northeastern Japanese coast affected by the tsunami.
So why do I think the issue of video quality -- including UGC versus professional -- is so important? As human beings I believe we understand reality above all through visual information, which often helps us come to grips with more abstract types of knowledge. For example, even after reading dozens of articles about the situation in Japan, I think part of my brain was still wondering, "How does a tsunami cause over $300 billion of damage, anyway?" Well, this is how. And I further believe this kind of visceral (as opposed to abstract) knowledge is the basis of empathy and sympathy, which in turn provide the motivation for charity.