The dark underbelly of YouTube

By Brian Pierce

From to Google, from Wikipedia to the blogosphere, our society has been rocked by one Internet phenomenon after another. The most recent of these is YouTube.

I am not among the first (or even the first few thousand) to note that the Internet acts to decentralize information from the elite to the masses. It was only a matter of time, then, that some Web site would do for video what Napster did for music, or what any number of sites did for plane tickets and hotel rooms.

But YouTube differs from its forebears in important and portentous ways and has the potential to change the world not always for the better.

YouTube has played a central role in many of the stories that have dominated the headlines in recent weeks, and many an unknown or underappreciated soul has found fame on its cluttered pages. But so too have careers been destroyed and names been tarnished.

This is not altogether a bad thing. When soon-to-be-former Virginia senator George Allen was caught on tape at a rally insulting an audience member with the racial slur “macaca,” I rejoiced. The event spurred the downfall of the once presidential contender’s campaign and laid bare the ugly underbelly of Allen’s good ol’ boy persona.

And when police officers repeatedly and apparently unnecessarily stunned a UCLA student with a taser, YouTube helped remind law enforcement across the country that they now live in an age of heightened accountability.

But while those like me can revel in seeing a sleazy GOP candidate fall down, or celebrate a tool that encourages police restraint, these events should still give us all pause.

We must ask ourselves what will happen to the world of politics when every candidate knows that every moment on the campaign, and plenty of moments off it, will be at the fingertips of millions of Americans across the country. In a political age already derided for its dirtiness, we must ask ourselves if YouTube further discourages good potential candidates from running. And will those who do run be forced to lose any sense of spontaneity, making politics become more rehearsed than it already is?

We must ask whether a police force can adequately protect us if it is scared to exert any force in a world where an unfairly edited video clip can ruin a career.

We must confront the reality that the power of information now belongs to everybody and consider what responsibilities that power begs of us.

While no instrument that gives voice to the voiceless can be a bad thing, we must also reflect with humility that those out there who are impeccably credentialed and expertly trained deserve to be listened to perhaps more than the rest of us.

We must ask whether we want to live in a society where we are judged by the worst thirty seconds of our lives. By now everybody is aware of Michael Richards’ racially charged outburst at a comedy club. Richards’ words are by no means excusable, but it is entirely possible that his problem has less to do with racism than with rage. Caught in a moment of unbridled anger and knowing nothing about his hecklers but the color of their skin, he may have hurled the most hurtful words he could think of. In any case, he will forever be condemned as a racist whether he deserves it or not.

In the 1950s, as a nation confronted the specter of the brutally oppressive Soviet Union, George Orwell wrote in his famous novel 1984 of a world where the government observes every citizens’ actions, no matter how private. And while we may still rightfully worry that Big Brother exists in the form of George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzalez, we must also consider whether we live in a world where Big Brother is you, is me, is your neighbor, is all of us.