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The legacy of Time’s latest ‘Person of the Year’

Brian Doxtader and Marty Schroeder | Thursday, February 1, 2007

Time Magazine recently declared “you” to be the “Person of the Year,” primarily because of the Internet phenomenon of YouTube. YouTube is a Web site that allows web surfers to post and watch Internet videos at no cost, and is one of the biggest and most well-known Web sites.

“Every video ever is on YouTube,” joked comedian Dane Cook on SNL (in a clip that was, ironically, removed from YouTube at NBC’s request). Cook may not have been far off. The site is now home to countless videos, ranging from simple home movies to complex commercial endeavors.

YouTube was founded by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim – three former PayPal employees – in 2005. By summer of 2006, it was one of the world’s most popular Web sites, and in October 2006 it was sold as a subsidiary of Google.

Easy cop-out remarks aside, Time Magazine’s selection raises some serious questions. “You” may be the director of your own destiny and YouTube video, but how long is it going to be before advertisers catch wind of this and reach their tentacles into this supposedly egalitarian and personally driven Internet phenomenon? A look into where websites like YouTube were and where they are now reveals much about where they will probably be going.

This may be cynical, but is there any industry in the United States that has not been taken over by corporations? YouTube is our generation’s Mom and Pop store; we know who our friends are and we all come together to make media for each other. However, the commercials are on the way.

YouTube has, in many ways, revolutionized Internet video by compiling most of it within the confines of a single Web site. There is a ton of copyrighted material like music videos, sporting events and television show clips, though some studios, like NBC, have begun to crack down.

What’s truly bizarre about Internet video is the way it has made minor celebrities and cultural icons out of so-called “viral videos.” Accidental clips like the Star Wars Kid (YouTube search: star wars kid), Leeroy Jenkins (YouTube search: leeroy jenkins) and the Numa Numa video (YouTube search: numa numa) contrast with “real” videos like the “Shoes” video (YouTube search: shoes) or the SNL digital shorts. Whether they know it or not, these “common people,” who have not gone through the traditional flaming hoops to stardom, are the latest fads without being in their own film or on “Oprah.” This is not to say that Tom Cruise jumping around on “Oprah” was not one of the most watched clips on Internet video sites, but who knows what the real Leeroy Jenkins looks like, or who the Star Wars kid is? We may not know, but the Star Wars kid was parodied on former Fox hit “Arrested Development” – he became a pop culture icon to millions who don’t know his name. These characters, who act a little out of the ordinary, are the people Time is talking about when they made “you” the “Person of the Year” – not to mention the YouTube users with the foresight to put these videos up in the first place.

Another phenomenon is the “remixing” of popular media. Everything from the old “X-Men” cartoon – redubbed as the “Juggernaut” video (Google video search: juggernaut) – to the “G.I. Joe” Public Service Announcements (YouTube search: gi joe psa) have been altered, usually to comic effect. These movies have proven immensely popular, but are problematic because they use copyrighted materials. Though these materials have been altered (often drastically) some videos, like the aforementioned “Juggernaut” clip, have been removed because of infringement laws.

One of the positive side effects for advertisers, however, are the commercials available on YouTube. With the impending Super Bowl XLI commercials, everyone, including “you,” will be able to go back to YouTube the next morning and watch their favorite commercials over and over and over again – a boon for whoever’s marketing department creates the cleverest commercial. The 1984 “1984” Apple commercial (YouTube seach: apple 1984) or Reebok’s “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker” (YouTube search: terry tate) are now available long after their initial airdate. While all the music recording companies and entertainment companies are clamoring for more control over the media content on the internet, Web sites such as YouTube are the mother lode for advertisers, provided they make a connection with their consumers. Create a plot within a group of commercials – something Taco Bell has attempted to do with its current Carmen Electra commercials – put the whole storyline, once completed, to Web sites like YouTube and have your potential customers watch your commercials over and over again. Machiavellian tactics like this may not be ethical, but this is the way of commercial advertising with devices like TiVo and others eliminating the television advertisement.

A side effect of this could be advertising competitions similar to the focus groups companies use to know how to market to certain demographics. The freelance advertiser wouldn’t be holed up in a cubicle, but instead be able to submit commercials to companies by posting them on websites like YouTube. Consumers and companies could vote for their favorite and by the time you’ve won, everyone has seen so many advertisements from a single company. The possibilities for corporations to use (read: abuse) these Web sites are endless.

All in all, the Google buyout of YouTube could be one of the most damaging things to happen to “you.” As a publicly owned company, the shareholders will be the ones who determine the direction that the Web site takes.

Any form of creative community that could have come out of YouTube will have to go someplace else and the website that bore “Shoes” and the Star Wars kid will be a hunting ground for advertisers trying to get “you” to spend “your” money.

Time said we are the “Person of the Year” because we are creative, original and exactly what corporations are not. If we want to live up to the legacy Time has given us, we need to find more men like Leeroy Jenkins.

Contact Brian Doxtader at

bdoxtade@nd.edu and Marty Schroeder at mschroe1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.