YouTube: a peril to us all?


Lance Ulanoff is warning us about the dangers of YouTube and what he calls iVideoism:

iVideoism is the insatiable need to digest video of virtually any kind on the Web and elsewhere (except TV). Most sufferers will live on viral video sites like TagWorld, Google Video, and YouTube.

I thought for a moment he might be kidding but no, he appears to be in earnest.  Lance thinks access to video on the net might be a social problem. 

The inescapable truth is that the moving image will be everywhere, yet iVideots will soon lose any true connection with the live people moving all around them.

It’s puzzling.  This "alienation" argument is precisely the one social critics used in the 20th century to warn us about TV.   But they thought that TV would have this effect because it was dominated by a few channels, a few brands, and a lot of brainless advertising.  The trouble with TV in the 1950s, they supposed, was that it was contained uniformity that must induce conformity from which alientation must surely follow. 

Say what you will about YouTube, but the problem here is precisely not the stupefying powers of a mass medium.  No, the reason YouTube is interesting is that it offers a fountain of invention from many thousands of people, pursuing a vast number of, some of them, deeply strange and cryptic projects.  YouTube is a mad house of inventiveness.  Regard the sprawling mess that is our culture. 

That’s what you begin to wonder about social commentators.  They have a very few "critical" cannons to roll out when called upon to reflect upon our world.  It doesn’t matter whether the target is mass media or micro media, the answer is going to be the same.  This is bound to be bad for us, not least because it will alienate us one from the other. 

Isn’t this the most powerful argument for the emergent, unedited, unconstrained, unpoliced and unapproved nature of our culture.  If we left it to the commentators, every innovation would look like a problem. Every innovation, TV and its opposite, would be forbidden us.  Thank god we have intellectuals to protect us from ourselves.  Thank god we don’t ever listen to them.

Lance, buddy, stow the warnings and break out the bubbly.  Every member of the species would love to have the "problem" of too much choice.  In the contemporary phrase with which we often honor the propulsive force of our culture, all of them like to be sipping from this fire house.  This is what we look like.  This is who we are. 


Lance, Ulanoff.  2006.  Are you an iVideot?  Internet Video is sucking life out of our live world.  PCMagazine.  April 20, 2006. here.

9 thoughts on “YouTube: a peril to us all?

  1. Arnie McKinnis

    Grant – I agree with you about “experts” – but I believe it probably goes further and deeper. Most of us, even if we “know” something very well (i.e. an expert) only know it within our own context – anything (geography, social, economic, etc.). Get out of own context and we are no longer an expert on the subject – but we continue to speak like one.

  2. Peter

    It strikes me that there’s a great parody you could write here, warning us all of the dangers of reading to or listening to too many cultural critics!

    “Children today risk growing up narrow-minded and suffering from ennui, as a result of reading too many commentators who only write for the NYRB, or who fail to understand the Internet. Parents: make sure your children receive a balanced diet of social commentary!”

  3. Tom Guarriello

    It’s a particularly interesting day in the “they’ve gone mad” wing of the tsk-tskers. Here, Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal:

    “But there is one more personality trait common to the blogosphere that, like crabgrass, may be spreading to touch and cover everything. It’s called disinhibition. Briefly, disinhibition is what the world would look like if everyone behaved like Jerry Lewis or Paris Hilton or we all lived in South Park.

    Example: The Web site currently famous for enabling and aggregating millions of personal blogs is called If you opened its “blogs” page this week, the first thing you saw was a blogger’s video of a guy swilling beer and sticking his middle finger through a car window. Right below that were two blogs by women in their underwear.

    In our time, it has generally been thought bad and unhealthy to “repress” inhibitions. Spend a few days inside the new world of personal blogs, however, and one might want to revisit the repression issue.”

    Oh, man, women in their underwear. What’s next?

  4. steve

    Remember: it was always better Before. The ancient Greeks had Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages before their own Lead. The Roman Republic looked back to Romulus and Remus. The early Roman Empire missed the Republic. The Renaissance thinkers and artists saw themselves as restoring ancient glory.

    Nostaligia turned to “social criticism” during the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The romantic movements in poetry and literature set the tone. Then we had Rousseau and then Marxists (not all of them, and not Marx himself)
    who insisted that living in a free society with specialization and market competition and fluid social roles was inferior to rustic stability and feudalism.

    Fast-forward to the postwar US. First we had the problems of the Lonely Crowd and mass society–things were better in the old days when people were more individualistic. Then we had the problem of excessive abundance and mindless consumerism and the Leisure Crisis–things were better when our mass economy wasn’t so productive. Then we had the Age of Scarcity–things were better when the economy was booming and we didn’t have to worry about foreign competition.

    Then we had the transition to today’s New Economy, with flexible supply chains and firms facing gales of entrepreneurial creative destruction, higher returns to skill and creativity, and the ability to segment and individualize goods and services like never before.

    Now the Before of the social critics is the Mass Society where people didn’t go Bowling Alone or watch different TV shows from one another. And they’re already campaigning to valorize today as a Before life-extension period, when people had the good grace to die quickly.

  5. Peter

    Well said, Steve. Is it because the people in most societies doing the social criticizing are middle-aged and older, who spend their time looking backward, while younger people are too busy doing the doing to do any criticizing?

    Last night in Britain, the BBC current affairs programme “Newsnight” had a look at how the UK has changed since the birth in 1926 of Queen Elizabeth II (whose 80th birthday it was yesterday). One of the Newsnight guests, renaissance historian Lisa Jardine, noted that most of the “decline” commentary (ie, “things were much better in the past”) is written by, about, and for the middle classes. The loss of deference, the rise of multi-culturalism, the break-up of the family, etc, are recent phenomena only for the middle classes. For both the working class and the aristocracy (at least in Britain) these social trends have been features of everyday life for a lot longer than just the last 80 years.

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  7. Sarah

    “Every member of the species would love to have the ‘problem’ of too much choice.”

    I’d love to be that optimistic! I think overwhelming choice is a big change for a lot of people, and it’s reasonable that it should require a big adaptation that might take a generation.

    Check out all the efforts, even by supergeeks, to simplify and reduce information intake. Lifehacks is all about geeks freaking out about information overload. Merlin at is investigating Buddhism as a way to deal with excessive RSS subscriptions. Every discussion about the future of the internet inspires somebody to rhapsodize, wishfully I think, about how new technology will finally streamline our media sources, once and for all. Coping with too much choice is an underdeveloped skill set.

  8. art

    Your post is really true. YouTube can’t be simply reduced to tv and “viewing” models and all the baggage that comes with it. And if one only goes from judging by appearances, then YouTube isnt responsible for “viral vidiots”, american colleges are! What is interesting about the YouTube as agency, is the obviously different generational perspectives and notions of what the “video” is as well: ‘performative’ (college student/post-jackass individual documentation of, lets call it “being”); ‘linking’ (collective viewing, providing a recent example of a clip from an incident on tv or actual event that is then linked to the next days by many websites) and – actually a very important, underrated factor – a global music-document collecting/sharing (here in particular, a strong tendency of hard to find, rare, private super8s of concerts, etc.. from late 70s, 80s music)

    In the case of the last, it is really astounding. Material that before YouTube was unimaginable to find, research, just watch and so on, is now flowing in such density and continuos postings.

    Why suddenly all the focus around 70s and 80s reappears – except perhaps that a generation is invested in that? What age would they be, this isnt the college circuit… So again, another community and age-set steps forward. And obviously collector-oriented, as in rarer music-material (really unusual finds, private concert shots, from around the world, not just the usual England, Germany, Austria, Spanish, but latin american or eastern countries 60s tv clips, etc.etc..)Before YouTube, it was never known to just find an open sharing of the material for free. So why suddenly the wealth of material?

    And with all of that, what makes it all the more interesting, is that is operates as a dynamic system, tributaries flowing into a stream and one finds certain more stable pools and then more temporal flows, and as each week some posts have been removed (license most likely a problem from old tv like Sat.Nite Live or so on) and so one cant take any artifact for granted.

    YouTube is the closest example of a new kind of living archive/database that really enticed a range of different communities to take part. It happened with sound a few years now, but never with video/visual heritage.

    The issue isnt the appearance of “viral videos”, or even the “watching” factor at all – but the more enticing significant desire for history and memory that can not be reduced to simply nostalgia..There alongside the collective links that mark off the tv program or the event, and the post-jackass community, is an example of self-organized, sharing and structuring of material from popular culture NOT of the lowest common dumbing down denominator, but of everyday media, broadcast-tv and recording culture.

  9. Matt Bernius

    “iVideots will soon lose any true connection with the live people moving all around them.”

    It’s interesting how much this echos Clifford Stoll’s “Silicon Snake Oil” (1996). As memory served Stoll spent a good portion of that work decrying how disembodied internet communications will subvert interpersonal connections.

    Hasn’t this “mediation decay” arguement been around since the dawn of time?

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